Piracy

Space Pirates is a science fiction trope that just won't go away. The image of pirate freebooters on the high seas is just too romantic for words, science fiction writers can't resist. Alas, in a scientifically accurate world, they are more or less impossible, much like space fighters and for similar reasons. There ain't no stealth in space, so it is practically impossible for a fat space galleon to be surprised in mid trip by a sinister space corsair flying the Jolly Roger. Or a rude surprise for a space merchant ship whose trajectory passes too near the Somali Asteroids for that matter. It would be several orders of magnitude easier for the "piracy" to take the form of grand theft from the merchant's warehouses on the ground.

Synonyms for "pirate" include corsair, buccaneer, and freebooter.

Do keep in mind that back in the days of Blackbeard piracy was punishable by death. If nothing else many pirates were savage murderers. The skull-and-crossed-bones flag contained skulls and bones as a message to the hapless galleon. The message was to hand over your treasure with no resistance, or the pirates would kill you and take it anyway. These are not the jolly comedic figures many of us remember from childhood stories.

And this is not just historical pirates. In the present day pirates operating around places like Indonesia will often torture and kill those who they capture.

But over and above the homicide aspect, under Admiralty law pirates were considered Hostis humani generis (Latin for "enemy of mankind"). The high seas could be claimed by no nation, they were the common property of all. So piracy was seen as a crime committed against all nations. Therefore all nations were bound by admiralty law to capture, bring to trial, and (if found guilty) execute any pirates they encountered; regardless of whether the nation had been attacked by that particular pirate or not. The trial usually was in a court martial held land-side, but in extreme cases could be by drum-head court-martial on the high seas convened by the officers of the capturing ship. Convicted pirates were traditionally hanged, in space I suppose they'd be thrown out an airlock without a space suit ("death by spacing").

The other class of seafaring criminal who were considered hostis humani generis were slavers.

Nowadays things are a bit different. Vessels on the high seas are under the protection of and in the jurisdiction of the vessel's flag state. Piracy is considered an offense of universal jurisdiction, so any state can board and seize a vessel engaged in piracy. And any state may try and impose penalties according to that state's laws.

Piracy does not work very well in a Rocketpunk solar-system based fictional universe. But if one is creating a fictional universe with faster-than-light starships, the author can tweak the properties of the FTL drive in order to allow piracy. As a matter of fact, many tweaks that will allow interstellar combat could also allow interstellar piracy.

Generally the pirates will have to perform naval boarding in order to loot the target merchant ship. In the Traveller RPG, boarding parties and the defenders use cutlasses since shooting bullet holes in a pressurized hull is considered to be a Bad Thing. But actually, all romanticism aside, it would take about an hour before the air leaking out a bullet hole depressurized the compartment to dangerous levels. So ditch the sword and take a submachine gun instead (long rifles are unwieldy in narrow spacecraft corridors).

For a far more incisive analysis, refer to these articles from the indispensable Rocketpunk Manifesto: And A Bottle Of Rum, Yo Ho Ho And A Bagful Of Khat, and Pirates in SPAAACE !!! - Reconsidered


As a side note, historically there was a bit of nuance used when employing Jolly Roger pirate flags.

A pirate ship would approach its merchant ship prey while displaying either no national flag ("no colors") or a false flag ("false colors") in the hope that the merchant captain was stupid enough to be fooled by this transparent ploy.

Once the pirate closed to firing range, it would fire a warning shot across the merchant's bow and hoist the black pirate flag. The message was "surrender without a fight, give us your cargo, and we'll let you live." Usually if the merchant fights but then surrenders, the pirates would tend to give them quarter if the black flag was flying.

If the pirate captain became angry (usually when the merchant refused to surrender), they'd hoist the bloody red flag. This means the merchant is in hot bubbling doo-doo up to their eyebrows. The red flag means the pirates are going to take the ship by force, and no quarter will be given. You had your chance Mr. Merchant, but you just had to go and cheese me off. Now we are going to capture your ship, kill you all, and take all your valuables. Enjoy your last few minutes of life.

If the merchant thinks the pirate is actually a privateer, the merchant might be inclined to resist. Privateers are forbidden to fight with no quarter, so the merchant knows they can surrender at any time during the battle. Of course the merchant is shafted if it turns out their assailant is a pirate after all. Or is a shady privateer captain who knows that Dead Men Tell No Tales, while making it clear this includes both the hapless merchant crew and any blabber-mouth members of his crew.

An implication of this is that the mere possession of a pirate flag is enough to convict one of the crime of piracy. Only a pirate would dare fly the Jolly Roger, as they was already under threat of execution


Types of Pirates

Some of these terms are universal, that is, they can easily be applied to your science fiction universe. Others are more specific to certain historical situations, but are still of interest to the science fiction author.


Pirates

Pirates are pirates. They are people who rob people at gunpoint (and other violent crimes) for private ends and without authorization from any country; as long as this takes place on the high seas.

They are generally after valuable cargo carried by helpless merchant vessels. However some are also interested in kidnapping anybody worth a ransom, seizing the merchant ship itself, capturing the people on the ship in order to sell them into slavery, recruiting new pirates from the passengers, and committing other unspeakable acts.

Mild pirates just considered piracy their occupation. They just wanted the cargo with as little fuss as possible, and generally would not harm the merchant crew if they refrained from causing any trouble.

Brutal pirates on the other hand were bloodthirsty killers, torturing and slaughtering the merchant crew because they got a kick out of it.

Another term for pirate is "freebooter." This comes from the Dutch word "vrijbuiter", which comes from the word "vrijbuit" (plunder), which comes from "vrij" (free) + "buit" (booty).

When among only other of their kind, pirates would call themselves "pirates." If they were among Naval officers, judges, magistrates, snitches, and others who would hang them for their crimes, pirates would call themselves "merchant crewmen" or something equally innocuous.


Privateers

Pretty much the only difference between a pirate and a privateer is a little scrap of paper called a Letter of Marque and Reprisal. This letter gave the privateers authorization from their home country to act in a piratey fashion on ships belonging to hostile countries, as spelled out in the letter of marque.

Some privateers would become pirates, attacking ship of countries not allowed by the letter of marque and hoping there were no witnesses. They would actually be pirates using the letter of marque to hide behind, pretending they were privateers.

When the war which prompted the letter of marque to be issued had ended, the letter was revoked. Some privateers would become pirates because they would ignore the revocation.

Privateers would call themselves “Gentleman of Fortune”, though that term was quickly stolen by full blown pirates.


Smugglers

Smugglers are just merchants who are trying to avoid legal restrictions on free trade. Local governments can be so unreasonable sometimes about which trade goods they deem to be illegal, subject to expensive import taxes, or only allowed to be carried by official government merchant ships in the official government monopoly. The same goes for hostile fleets laying siege to a planet, who take a dim view of blockade-runners supplying said planet with guns.

The smugglers are not blood-thirsty cut-throats stealing goods at gunpoint from captured merchant ships. Instead they are just peaceful merchants trying to quietly sneak past customs patrols and burdensome tariff regulations.

The government however view smuggling as piracy, that is, the smugglers are swiping money and goods out of what was intended to be a closed economic system. As far as the government is concerned, the end result is just as bad as if the smugglers were full-blown pirates.


Buccaneers

Spain more or less owned the entire Caribbean until the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588. After that Spain started to lose her colonies. A thorn in Spain's side was the French colony of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola.

The French settlers saw the plentiful hordes of wild oxen and pigs roaming the island, and the hungry Spanish ships frequently passing by, and so saw a business opportunity. The settlers would hunt the animals, cook the meat and sell it to the Spanish ships. The meat was cooked on racks called "boucans" (French for "barbecue"), so the Spanish called the French settlers "boucaniers." This was the origin of the term Buccaneers.

The Spanish later did something truly idiotic. Spain wanted to desperately hang on to its dwindling supply of Spanish colonies, and decided that the French buccaneers represented a threat to the security of the Spanish colony of Santa Domingo on the same island. Spain therefore came to the conclusion to forgo the delicious boucan-roasted meat and do their best to wipe out the French colony of Haiti.

The buccaneers took exception to this, and the Spanish quickly discovered that they had kicked a hornet's nest.

The buccaneers had no ships, but that was easily remedied. These guys typically would hunt the wild boars of Haiti armed only with two long daggers, they were mean and tough. On little canoes in the dark of night the buccaneers would stealthfully approach Spanish ships moored off the coast, quietly climb aboard, and silently cut the throat of the Spanish crew.

Thus equipped with ships, the buccaneers became fierce pirates. With the major difference that the buccaneers would only attack Spanish ships. They had a grudge against Spain, so to speak.

The buccaneers called themselves "The Brethren of the Coast", and had a long run in the Caribbean. They later established the pirate haven of Tortuga.

So the Spanish not only failed to eradicate the French colony of Haiti, they created a monster devoted to preying exclusively on Spanish ships. And they forever lost access to scrumptious Haitian barbecue.


Marooner

Like most of the other major white-skinned seagoing European countries of the time, Spain committed the crime of enslaving brown-skinned people of African heritage. Some of the slaves would manage to escape and run away. The Spanish called such people "cimarron", which came from the Spanish word meaning "wild or untamed." They would create "cimarron settlements."

The moronic powers that be who ruled Spain has apparently learned nothing from the Buccaneer debacle. They had never heard the quote "insanity means doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

The Spanish tried to wipe out the cimarron settlements the same way they tried to eradicate the buccaneers. And they got the exact same results.

In retaliation the cimarron targeted Spanish towns, and shipping. They soon acquired their own set of captured Spanish ships, called themselves "Marooners" after the term "cimarron", and started to prey on Spanish shipping. The term "marooner" came to mean any pirate with brown skin, but the original meaning was cimarron pirates with a grudge against Spain.


Corsairs

These were Muslim pirates and privateers based on the coast of North Africa who raided Christian towns and shipping all across the Mediterranean Sea, taking tons of ill gotten gains and about one million Christians who were sold as slaves. The Corsairs saw this as a religious duty to fight the infidels, though there was the opportunity to make a little money on the side by hijacking treasure.

The most famous were the Barbary Corsairs from the Barbary Coast of North Africa. They actually had letters of marque so were actually privateers. The Barbary Corsairs intercepted ships traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar or coming from the trading ports of Alexandria and Venice.

Interstellar Piracy Essentials

The situation, driving forces, and ecology of seagoing piracy on the Spanish Main is very different from interstellar buccaneers raiding merchant starships. Things will have to be altered in order for deep space piracy to make sense.

But some things are eternal. Pirates benefit from paid pirate-informants who spy around the starport and ferret out which merchant ship has the most lucrative cargo and when it is departing. Pirates will also need a fence or three to launder their ill-gotten gains into neutral money. Regardless of whether the pirates are operating in the 1600s or the 2500s.

Pirates will make heavy use of naval boarding, it is a large enough topic it has an entire section.

SECTION 11: OPERATION SHORT OF WAR

Dealing with space piracy falls into the category of operations short of war, and thus deserves discussion.  Classical piracy on the Caribbean model is another victim of the lack of stealth in space.  After all, everyone can see you boarding the ship, and everyone can see you taking it somewhere to sell it.  And they can probably see who you sold it to.  After a few raids, some navy or coalition of navies shows up, blasts your ship apart, and destroys the base you were fencing your prizes at.  For that matter, the orbit used to rendezvous with the target is likely to be non-standard, alerting the target before you even get there.  This gives them time to prepare defenses, and any nearby government vessels a chance to deal with you early.  All of this makes for a shortage of pirates.

There are, however, several ways that piracy in a broader sense could still happen, such as privateering and ransoming. Privateering is a lot like piracy, except that you’re selling the prizes to a government, and everyone knows it.  The problem is that you will quickly be flagged as a warship, and then it becomes difficult to sneak up on your targets.  For that matter, any vessel from a belligerent is unlikely to end up in a situation where it is close to an enemy vessel and legally able to capture it without the enemy knowing well in advance.  It is illegal under international law to capture a vessel in the waters of a neutral power, and this is likely to apply in space.  Any attempt by a vessel of the enemy, be it a regular naval unit or a privateer, to intercept a vessel in deep space will be detected well beforehand, leaving no advantage to the privateer.  The enemy will either be able to intervene or not, and the type of raider makes no difference.  The exception, of course, is if the competing powers are close together, such as a war between Europa and Ganymede.  Even then, there is little of the traditional privateer, and it rapidly turns into commerce raiding by contractor, which might or might not be sufficiently like piracy to be referred to as such.  

Another alternative is the method used by the Somali pirates.  The objective, instead of capturing and selling the ship, is to hold it for ransom.  This is far more practical, because there is not a fixed base where the ship is sold for the various governments involved to go after, and the small craft used to board can be hidden with relative ease, provided that there are no major warships nearby.  In this case, the planet in question can provide useful cover, as can other small craft in orbit. The biggest problem in this case is likely to be boarding.  While it is not conceptually difficult, boarding is likely to be problematic for an ill-equipped pirate.  On the other hand, the pirates do not necessarily need to enter the hab of the target to accomplish their mission.  They could hold them hostage quite effectively from outside the hull, and it is even possible that they could take control of the ship’s systems (drive in particular) externally.


Even if, for some reason, a ship in deep space was seized, there are still significant problems to overcome.  Commercial ships are unlikely to carry more delta-V than is needed for their mission, plus a small safety margin.  During a deep-space intercept, half of the delta-V will already have been burned, leaving the captors with very limited options as to where to go.  Except in very rare circumstances, those options will take the ship close to the original destination, which might well dispatch forces to recapture the vessel.  There are only two ways to deal with the mass ratio problem.  First, throw away anything that you don’t want, such as cargo and possibly the old crew.  The issue with this is that the amount that can be thrown away (assuming that you wish to keep the cargo) is fairly minimal.  Second, bring along extra fuel and refuel the target after boarding.  This means you need a bigger ship to start with, driving up the price to enter the business.  Theoretically, the best time to seize a ship would be at departure, but that in turn means that it is close to its origin, and forces from there will be well-positioned to intervene.

Another piracy-like action is barratry.  This is some form of misconduct by the crew that is not in the owner’s best interest, such as stealing the cargo.  It also covers nautical (or hypothetically astral) insurance fraud.  Both of these are quite feasible, though certain forms of barratry (diverting the ship to a fence) cannot be concealed as well in space as they can on Earth for reasons mentioned above.

Another interesting concept raised in the course of discussing piracy and boarding is that of chases.  There are several potential classifications of chases.  The most obvious is that in which the pursuer must simply catch the pursuee, who has no particular goal other than getting away.  The victor in this chase is determined by available acceleration and delta-V, but it only gets interesting when one can be traded for the other.  The pursuer might well pile on the acceleration, as they only have to catch up with the target once, while the target must stay ahead at all times.  The real complication here, though, is that the pursuee is likely to be fleeing to somewhere, instead of just away.  This means that at some point he has to turn around and slow down.  The pursuer then has a free shot at him.  This assumes, of course, that the pursuer must only get in range of the target to destroy it, instead of trying to rendezvous and board.  That objective is significantly more difficult, as the pursuer must carefully time his burns to meet the target.  Another potential complication is that the pursuer will most likely have to avoid wherever the pursuee is going, and must keep enough delta-V in reserve to do so after the pursuee is overtaken.  Getting home again is also a potential problem, but it might be resolved by dispatching a tanker to meet the pursuer after it’s safe.

by Byron Coffey (2019)
AND A BOTTLE OF RUM

Pirates in SPAAACE !!!

There is no escaping them, no matter how high your cruise acceleration or how much reserve delta v you have in the tanks. They lurk the literary spaceways, ready to pounce on the next gilded starliner or even the next wandering tramp freighter.

Are they possible? Or — a more relevant and demanding test — are they plausible?

First, let's assume a setting with no FTL or other out and out magitech, confined for practical purposes to the Solar System. Orbital mechanics makes the paths followed by commercial ships highly predictable, so that hijacking one would have much in common with train robbery, except with no doubt that the train will be on time. The problem is that the entire line is in plain view of the main depot — even from hundreds of millions of kilometers away — so no matter where you pull the job, the dispatchers can see it and notify Pinkerton's.

Along the spacelanes, at least in normal space (e.g., no FTL), every robbery is therefore a brazen robbery. Which leads to two further observations:

1. The above applies only to robbery, not to, say, embezzlement or fraud. These remain practical ways to transfer funds to your account, as it were, but this hardly fits our image of space piracy.

2. Sticking to stickups, since the act will be brazen anywhere there is no reason to travel off into deep space somewhere to commit it. You may as well strike right after the ship undocks from a space station, so long as you're outside the immediate reach of the authorities. (And if they're on the inside of the station airlock, they can't get at you till they order up a patrol craft.)

This has a couple of advantages. You don't need to set out in your pirate ship weeks or months in advance (which everyone in the Solar System would see you doing anyway). Your ship won't be needed till just before — or just after — the heist. Even then the ship doesn't need carronades on the quarterdeck, or the equivalent; its function is more analogous to a getaway car. If you shoot it out with the authorities you're going to lose — if you could shoot it out with them and win, why didn't you just seize the station itself outright?

Which leads to a further complication. For the sake of Romance we don't want just a single act of space piracy, however brazen — we want endemic piracy, Brethren of the Coast. The sort of heist I outlined above, however, is pretty much an inherent one-off. In fact, since it won't be hard to figure out who pulled it off (who made a sudden and unscheduled departure right after the crime?), your ID will be all over the police net, and you'll have a hard time fencing your haul, or even enjoying it in peace and quiet.

Assuming, however, that the local police all see eye to eye about the severity of the offense. Here politics raises its ugly head — not ugly at all, really, in this context. For where there are Brethren of the Coast, Lords of the Isles cannot be far behind, and when the pirate wears a badge, all those messy legal complications go conveniently away. They are replaced by diplomatic and sometimes military complications.

The dirty secret of piracy has always been that — like terrorism today — it is in the eye of the beholder, as Bess told Felipe. Endemic space piracy, of the sort we would like to write about, almost always has a strong whiff of guerilla war. Whether it pits the Nasty Empire against the Noble (if scruffy) Rebels, or the Good Shepherds against the Sea Wolves, is strictly up to the author's tastes.


James Cambias:

Piracy in space could work for the same reasons piracy on Earth works right now in places like Somalia and Malaysia. The pirates aren't quite enough of a problem to justify the cost (both $ and political) of putting them down. They operate out of areas with either complaisant or non-existent local law enforcement, so stopping the pirates would mean invading and "nation building" — which nobody likes.

Manned piracy in space would require some kind of space habitat which is either run by a powerful Earth state yet tolerates piracy (the "no peace beyond the Line" model), or a space habitat which is essentially owned by pirates and can defend itself (the "Libertaria" model).

Here's the real bottleneck: where do you get the pirates? On Earth there's never been a shortage of young men willing to steal stuff and kill people, but launching people into space costs an amazing amount of money, and keeping them alive up there costs even more. Launch space is limited, so anyone doing piracy is not doing something else — which means the profits of piracy have to support an entire space program.


Rick Robinson:

Carla — good question about what makes pirates and other thieves romantic. It's worth a blog post, but short form:

Historically most piracy has been plain thuggery, like sea piracy today. (Remember the cruise ship that repulsed an attack off Somalia?) Generally it has been both loathsome and petty — small boats attacking coastal freighters and the like.

A fair proportion, though, was peer competition between merchantse.g., Venetians v Genoese — and this becomes nearly indistinguishable from naval guerre de course (commerce raiding). This is both grander and more ambiguous.

There's also religious/ideological piracy, corsairing, what Drake was doing. This can also be grander and more ambiguous, to the extent you care (or can be persuaded in a story to care) about infidels, or papistry.

The piracy most associated with Romance — "Pirates of the Caribbean" — actually represents the declining phase of Protestant corsairing, more or less from Drake to Sir Henry Morgan to Blackbeard.

But surely the fascination with Robin Hood, or pirates, or the Mafia, also has to do with the general fantasy of living beyond the usual constraints. As such it also has a "rebel" undertone, since the usual constraints include, especially, the powers that be.

Cambias — yes; piracy or the like can function when the cost to the authorities of shutting it down is too high, and it doesn't touch their vital interests.

As for the cost of space travel, that poses complications way beyond piracy. Until/unless the cost can be brought down dramatically — about a hundredfold, from $10 million per ton or passenger to low orbit to perhaps about $100,000 per ton or passenger — the sort of space future familiar in SF is not likely to happen at all.

You just can't have colonies, or even robust space stations and bases, if every interplanetary mission costs several billion dollars/euros/whatever.


Doug:

If we allow for the possibility of stationary* bases that can act as useful defensive fortifications; than as a prelude to war than as an alternative to an all out offensive wars may begin with the use of pirates as auxiliary commerce raiders. Two factions in the deadlock stage before the outbreak of actual hostilities allow pirates to use their bases against each other. This allows for a shift in the economic and military balance between them, since piracy both constricts the enemies trade and also forces them to divert ship-construction to corvettes/frigates/whatever-their-patrol-craft-are-called instead of larger ship designed for the big battles.

If more than one faction undertakes this strategy it can set up an interesting dynamic between the auxiliary pirates, the spaceforce patrol craft crews, and the spaceforce line-ship crews. The Line ship crews are probably brown-nosing and button polishing while trying to ignore that while they get lots of simulator time they haven't actually seen combat yet.

I honestly don't know how difficult it would be to manage an intercept of a ship that happened to already be past the beginning of it's journey, but since it would be fairly obvious that a ship from an unfriendly base loitering near you would be a pirate we may be stuck with that.

However if a group were to try to attack a liner immediately after it left port they wouldn't need a ship of their own at all; just use the liner as the getaway vehicle. It even comes with it's own hostages! If you need a better mass ratio to reach you're preferred destination dump any cargo you don't want; and then set off for the nearest port unfriendly to the people you just stole from. This is probably where most pirates would get their start, hijacking a ship in their own home port and then try to modify it into a more effective and fearsome vessel. Stealing your first ship keeps your starting costs down.

When I said "they wouldn't need to use a ship of thier own" I was implying that they either had short range thruster power or had stowed away on board. Clearly you would need some mode of transport to board a ship as it was leaving a space station.

* By stationary I mean "Cannot drastically change their movement without outside help." Obviously anything orbiting the sun or a planet is moving, but the bases I'm thinking of can't change that movement very much without outside force.


Rick Robinson:

Orbital forts can be targeted by missiles at Stupendous Range — though whether the missile gets through defenses is another matter.

Commerce raiding has another effect — besides diverting funds from a battle force to patrol/escort craft, more fundamentally it diverts funds from the cargo ships. It raises their "protection rent." Note that in purely economic terms it makes no matter the rent goes to pay for escort ships or goes to the pirates themselves as protection money. Which leads to:

Hijacking does seem more practical than waylaying ships in deep space, especially since — let's face it — boarding a spaceship is just not a practical tactic. I can see storming the airlock of a ship docked up, or even boarding from a space taxi, but either way depending pretty much on catching the crew off guard.

But the other practical option is extortion, either tactically of individual ships, or strategically of shipping lines.


Winchell Chung:

In the story "Recoil" (collected in THE COMPLETE VENUS EQUILATERAL) by George O. Smith, the very first space pirate goes the extortionist route. In the novel, there really isn't any way to intercept and board a spacecraft.

So the pirate uses anti-ship weapons to destroy a couple of freighters in route. Then he announces that space shipping has become regrettably dangerous, but for the low-low fee of one dollar per ton of cargo (sent to an untraceable Swiss bank account), he will personally ensure that freighter spacecraft wouldn't accidentally be hit by missiles. A protection racket, in other words. Nice freighter you have there. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.


Doug:

The trouble with hijacking is that it's near impossible to repeat it. If you were on the crew or a passenger than your biometrics will undoubtedly be checked by port security, and if you're crew there may be police background checks as well. So you do your heist and then you find another way of operating or another line of work.

Boarding is extremely difficult with one ship, but not all that difficult with two or more. With one ship the problem is that while the pirate captain needs to keep the freighter and cargo relatively intact the freighter captain has no such restrictions. He can wait until the pirate is very close before either firing weapons or using his engines as a weapon or ramming.

The solution is to go in with two ships, with one ship matchiong velocities with the target far enough away that it can defend itself against a surpirse attack. The second closes and prepares to dock, and the ultimatum is sent. If the freighter tries to use force against the boarders it can be blasted out of the sky even if it suceeds.

Now there another factor that comes into play here: If a given ship and captain have a reputation for leaving no survivors even if their demands are met then there is little motivation to surrender. If on the other hand the freighter's crew can believe they will get better treatment through cooperation than there is a greater chance of surrender. Having a reputation for being true to your word is very useful for issuing ultimatums; particularly if the freighter captain can check his database on the captain and ship.

All this changes if the freighter is carrying it's cargo in detachable pods.


Rick Robinson:

Reliable identity checking spoils a lot of familiar plots!

For boarding, the "two ships" can simply be your ship, and a space taxi (or gig, or whatever you call a "ship's boat") that does the actual boarding. What you still don't get is classic boarding against resistance.

Reputation matters! In an environment where you can destroy a ship but not forcibly capture one, you depend on the victim's willingness to surrender. So you want a reputation for ruthlessness against those who don't surrender, but leniency toward those who do.

From ... AND A BOTTLE OF RUM by Rick Robinson (2007)
Pirates in SPAAACE Reconsidered

Somali pirates did not put to sea to further the cause of space opera, but space opera is an unintended beneficiary of their depradations, because we now have an excuse to reconsider a time honored trope: space piracy. Reread this recent post, and this older one. I have usually distinguished hard SF (and retro-hard rocketpunk) from space opera, but of course it is nearly all space opera at heart, no matter how well we tart it up with realistic details. And because we do want to tart it up, we can look to the waters off Somalia for lessons.

Apart from piracy as such, one of my commenters brought up another traditional form of malfeasance at sea, barratry, a name given to many crimes, the one of special SF interest being scuttling a ship to cover theft of its cargo. As I noted in the comments, this is an eminently practical space crime, indeed one that could already have been committed. If a commercial space launch blows up or sends its payload into the Indian Ocean, who knows if there was really a satellite aboard? (For that matter a launch sabotaged by commercial rivals surely also counts as barratry.)

One form of space piracy is a first cousin of barratry. If you can divert cargo spacecraft onto orbits to nowhere, under the right conditions you can divert one to Port Royal. Unlike barratry, there's no concealing this crime, no uncertainty whether a crime was committed, and you know the address of the receiver of stolen merchandise. How you serve a warrant is another matter, but like barratry this sort of piracy is a white collar crime and requires an insider.

What about 'real' piracy – forcible hijacking of spacecraft? The strategic lesson of Somalia piracy is a timeless one: It thrives along lawless coasts. And the first tactical lesson is that real pirates don't fly the Jolly Roger. The traditional image of space pirates striking out of the interplanetary vastness is unlikely, because a pirate ship on a nonstandard orbit is declaring itself to the entire solar system, putting potential victims on alert and giving any patrol force weeks to respond. Pirates will strike in crowded space, where their mother ships are indistinguishable from a host of civil craft.

Contrary to SF tradition, the asteroid belt makes a lousy pirate lair. It is vastly too big, a billion kilometers across, its shipping lanes likewise farflung. But since space piracy is brazen wherever you commit it, why not Earth orbital space? This will surely be the most crowded part of space for centuries to come, and the first to have a shadow side. Given hundreds of spacecraft, many in similar orbits, and a steady flow of inter-orbit shuttle craft moving among them, we have suitable physical conditions for brazen piracy. Distances in Earth orbital space are hundreds of times greater than in the waters off Somalia, and the Space Patrol can't be everywhere.

Boarding in space has its challenges. You can't board a spacecraft simply by bringing a small craft alongside and scrambling up a line – or can you? The defenders can easily jam the airlock, and cutting your way in is difficult, at minimum requiring costly specialized equipment. But pirates don't have to break into the pressure cabin to threaten passengers and crew, and effectively hold them hostage. Cut the power supply, disable the radiators – technically sophisticated pirates might even be able to hotwire the propulsion system and divert the ship without needing to directly overpower the crew.

Future versions of Captain Phillips will improvise 'nonlethal' means of defense. Evasive maneuver is a classic means of defense; attitude thrusters might also be used as fire hoses to keep boarders at bay. Putting defensive armament on civil spacecraft will be problematic for all the same reasons it is today.

The real challenge for our orbital pirates is not making captures, but where to take them. Pirates need a Port Royal, a place where the art of asking no questions trumps orbital mechanics. So why doesn't the Space Patrol simply blast it out of orbit? That is where politics come in. In rocketpunk days the default assumption was a Federation, a 'sole superpower' taken to the max. No room there for Port Royal, not in Earth orbit, not in the Kuiper Belt.

Remove the Federation and things aren't so easy. Take your pick of a Patrol paralyzed by dysfunctional legalism, or rival national patrols paralyzed by dysfunctional mutual antagonism – save, perhaps, a tacit mutual agreement that Port Royal is worth more as an intelligence-gathering asset than as blasted wreckage. Mix in whatever combination and stir to taste. The conditions needed for organized orbital piracy may be unlikely, but where commerce is rich but authority weak or uncertain, it could happen.

Lurking beyond piracy are questions about space warfare. I have been in the school of thought that sees space combat as dominated by the laws of physics and the vastness of space, where 'everyone sees everything,' and battles are fought by automated systems engaging each other at Stupendous Range. But what if real space conflicts end up happening in crowded space, where at Stupendous Range you can't easily distinguish hostile forces from civilian craft including friendly ones?

How things play out in those conditions could be very different – more complex, and because of the human element more interesting than robotic battles fought in the middle of nowhere.


Carla:

Close-quarters conflict, crowded conditions, difficulty telling friend from foe until it's too late, possibly a messy political situation and divided loyalties. Your scenario looks like a rich seam of plot and story :-)

Are your orbital pirates vulnerable on the way to space-Port Royal? If it's some distance from Earth orbit, would a ship being taken there be on a non-standard trajectory, and would that be obvious to the Space Patrol (or whatever)? If so, does it follow that your pirates have to have a way of making the hostages' lives dependent on the pirates' continuing survival? This is easy if the pirates and hostages are in the same craft; if Space Patrol destroy the craft they kill the hostages along with the pirates. But if the pirates don't actually board the cargo ship, just capture it by hot-wiring its propulsion system or whatever, does this mean that Space Patrol can devise a way of destroying the pirate ship while leaving the captive ship intact? A sort of small but highly accurate torpedo, perhaps — do those work in space, and what would the pirates do about them?

I was going to say that your orbital pirates would also have a problem in profitably disposing of their ill-gotten cargoes, since anyone could see and track a ship leaving Port Royal and arrest it whenever and wherever it tried to sell its stolen cargo. But this might not be an issue if the main profit is in hostage-taking and ransoms rather than the value of the stolen ship and cargo per se. In which case, the most profitable targets for space pirates (hijackers?) would logically be passenger rather than cargo craft, as this gives you more hostages to ransom.


Rick Robinson:

Things do get wonderfully messy when humans are involved.

And yes, vulnerability en route to Port Royal is a problem. The general solution, if you can't conveniently board the prize, is to keep in close formation with the capture.

Precision missiles/torpedoes are certainly possible, and lasers can potentially have ultra precise aim. But so long as only one patrol ship is in position to engage at a given moment, the pirate can position himself 'behind' the capture. The pirates might also attach a mine with a 'dead man' switch — blow up the pirate and the mine goes off.

The Somali pirates depend on ransoming crews and ships, but fencing off stolen merchandise might be possible. If the legal framework is weak enough, legitimate or semilegitimate cargo may also pass through Port Royal, and how do you prove that a given outbound cargo is previously stolen goods?

The underlying requirement is that the shipping industry regard piracy losses as cheaper than paying for enough hugely expensive Space Patrol ships to clean up the spaceways — and perhaps cheaper than opening their own books to prying official eyes.


Jim Baerg:

Rick: "The underlying requirement is that the shipping industry regard piracy losses as cheaper than paying for enough hugely expensive Space Patrol ships to clean up the spaceways - and perhaps cheaper than opening their own books to prying official eyes."

So, no space piracy in David Brin's "Transparent Society"


Rick Robinson:

To answer the question — not necessarily. Unwillingness to pay for a patrol force might still be enough to make piracy viable.

In space conditions, a degree of transparency is nearly a given — there's no sneaking in and out of Port Royal by night or fog. But no surveillance technology will see what its operators choose not to notice. I could see 'transparency' leading to a wink & nod culture.


Ferrell:

As far as pirates getting the 'drop' on a passenger vessel in orbit; your generic Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) (that looks like a thousand others) suddenly, or leasurely, scoots up to your trans-lunar transport and some guys in heavy-duty construction space suits squrt over to your ship and attach some commercial shaped-charges to various sections of your hull. They then tell you to let them on board; when you do, they take control and the OTV leaves, to go about its business. If the half dozen Space Patrol ships are busy shadowing each other (national politics) or inspecting the freighters from Mars (Customs and Drug Enforcement)or tracking some asteroid (Navigation Hazard Abatement), they then miss the whole thing. By the time someone notices that the transport is NOT headed for Lunar orbit, but is actually on its way to L-4 (Port Royal) it may be too late to stop and board it.

The American and Russian Space Patrols may be more professional and more agressive than say, the Non-Aligned States Space Patrol, but they can't be everywhere. As I've said before, you can tell a lot from a ship's drive flare and acceleration charateristics, but you can't determine the content or intentions of the crew from those facts. To further confuse things, sometimes ships change destinations due to reasons not apparent to the world at large.

If the government of L-4 Port Royal dosen't allow the 'taking' from certain nations or multinational companies, and even provide some 'kick-backs', then Port Royal may be untouchable (if things don't get too annoying to the rest of the various players in space commerice), at least from a political standpoint. As Rick said, things DO get messy when humans are involved. As far as the carefully orchastrated flow of interplanetary travel imagined during the 'golden age' of SciFi, I doubt that logical construction will be high on the list of criteria as space travel evolves and government entities strugle to keep up with the rapidly growing complexity of interplanetary travel and commerice.


Rick Robinson:

The one part of this scenario that might not work out well for the pirates is the pirate ship (OTV) 'going about its business.' Once the act of piracy is committed, the pirate ship has in effect hoisted the Jolly Roger by revealing its intent, and the only safe place for it is in close company with its prize. If it goes off on its own, Patrol ships finally have a clean shot for their fancy long range weaponry.

Once they get back to Port Royal, the pirate ship can be 'laundered' and return to service under a different registration. Again some wink & nod is required.

No doubt this whole situation is unstable; if piracy gets out of hand, there will finally be some sort of crackdown, such as putting Port Royal under quarantine, backed up by Patrol blockade.

As an alternative scenario, when things get out of hand Port Royal gets proactive and goes legit, perhaps establishing its own Patrol to clean out freelancers. Set a thief to capture a thief!


Ferrell:

I hadn't thought about the OTV 'going about its business' getting shot up and/or boarded after it delivered its 'cargo' of pirates, but you're probably right. Centuries ago, Jamaica was once a center of piracy and eventually did just as you suggest would happen to our future Port Royal; go legit or have its patrons withdraw their support and protection. Of course, if the OTV was just a 'robot-for-hire' type, then it may not really be worth shooting it up or even boarding it...the owners wouldn't know who was going to reprogram it after they rented it out for what they thought was legimate commerice..or, at least, they could claim they thought that.


Ian Moulding:

Or...

There is no Space Patrol. There is a single overarching Federation that controls space, be it the UN or whatever, but Earth is just as heavily balkanized as it is today. The space-controlling Federation acts as a proxy for the collective efforts of the nations that back it. This sort of situation depends on all the great powers of the era wanting to avoid an arms race in space while still having access to the resources of space.

The Federation's main job is to license large corporations to exploit space resources. It also runs a ships registry, provides technical licenses for ship crews, and other administrative tasks, but its main job is to collect fees and taxes from the corporations.

Some of these corporations are owned outright by national governments, others are nationally-owned through shell companies, and some are privately owned. There's a real mix of competing interests out there. All of these companies have private security, mainly to protect their assets from corporate espionage and disgruntled employees but also because there are a lot of expensive assets floating around with no central authority to guard them.

And in this setting it's also common for small highly maneuverable craft to approach larger craft. The corporations don't trust important data to broadcast media, and tightbeam communications can be intercepted by virtual-antennae nanoclouds without totally blocking the beam (Technobabble and handwavium in one sentence!). Pirate craft look just like couriers and packet ships, and if you bribe the right person at the security firm you can even get the proper approach codes.

Earth-Moon space and the busy Lagrange points are good places to approach a victim. Depending on how developed the setting is the Jupiter and Saturn systems might also have a piracy problem. There might also be enough traffic around Earth-Mars cyclers to support piracy.

A pirate base could be a station, cycler, or transfer vehicle owned by a supposedly legit company. Said company is actually backed by a national intelligence agency, coalition of companies, or other backer. Whatever the backer is, it can have a variety of motives — Disrupting a rival's activities, capturing a key piece of information or technology, or distracting attention from some other activity. And there can be multiple pirate havens, all backed by different players.

And no one nation on Earth can take any large-scale actions against piracy. There are too many interests at stake. It would take a majority of the great powers acting in (relative) cooperation to change the system without sparking a war. As long as piracy stays small, it will remain a valuable tool for the corporate and national players in space.

It's an unstable situation, but unstable situations make for fun story backdrops.


Ferrell:

And just to further confuse things, there will probably be pirates (criminals) and privateers (backed by Letters of Reprisal and Marquee); which is which are closely held secrets.


Ian Moulding:

Thinking about it, the term 'piracy' and romantic images of the age of sail are probably part of why 'hard' SF writers dismiss the idea of space piracy. The image invoked is one of a pirate ship approaching a victim on the high seas, far from help where no one can see what's happening... But in space everyone knows there's no such thing as stealth*.

Replace the term 'piracy' with 'hijacking'. Cargo vehicles are hijacked on a regular basis in the Western world, on brightly light streets and highways, with GPS broadcasting their positions.

* Part of the problem is that a lot of people confuse the ideas of strategic stealth (The inability to hide large-scale maneuvers) with tactical stealth (The ability to misdirect sensors or break target locks for a few seconds). And there's a lot you can do with strategic misdirection. Just look at the build-up to D-Day.


Rick Robinson:

Ian — I like that scenario. Easy to imagine an International Space Authority that doesn't really have much authority. In this situation the Patrol is likely to be mainly an emergency rescue organization, and even if their craft have some armament, how many ships do they have? Even Earth orbital space is a big place, let alone the rest of the Solar System.

Mars orbital space, Jupiter space, cyclers — anywhere with lots of traffic and no strong overarching authority. If authority is blurred enough you can also get the ambiguities Ferrell mentions. Whether a particular grab is piracy, privateering, or official arrest can depend on perspective!

Our familiar image of piracy definitely produces misleading preconceptions! Truth to be told, even most Golden Age piracy was by small craft operating near lawless coasts. Big quasi-warships like the Black Pearl were very much the exception. William Kidd's Adventure Galley was a similar ship. (The filmmakers perhaps had her in mind — I was impressed that they showed her using oars!) But Kidd was a highly ambiguous character, and Adventure Galley was actually an antipirate design.

In space, though, I suspect that even grand scale piracy — AKA irregular warfare — will happen in crowded space, not out in the middle of nowhere.

The comment about stealth is very well taken. Anyone remember Heinlein's Between Planets? The Venus rebels send troops aboard commandeered space liners to seize Circum-Terra space station. That is a perfectly viable operation, and can as easily be piratical as military — or have elements of both.


Ian Moulding:

1 — I think we just found the viable setting for human-piloted space fighters. As Carla said — Close quarters, crowded conditions, difficulty telling friend from foe, split-second life and death decisions, all in a boiling cauldron of politics and money. What sane government would leave those decisions up to an AI programmed by the lowest bidder? Small fighter craft piloted by officers trained to deal with hostage situations make sense.

2 — Pirate havens. Given the way legal authority is subdivided, leased out, and just plain sold in the sort of setting we're discussing, any station or orbital platform can be a pirate haven at least once. Station A impounds a craft from Station B for smuggling. Station B security intercepts a craft owned by the same company that owns Station A and demands the release of the craft impounded by Station A. But the cargo from that craft was actually owned by a government-backed corporation that owns Station C. Said government issues a letter of marque and reprisal allowing ships from Station C to intercept craft from Station A and sues Station B for losses. Meanwhile the mafia bribe a dock worker to let them into the impound area, and the cargo from that first impounded ship vanishes into the night.

The International Space Authority personnel give up and go get drunk.

3 — It can't be all crazy all the time, or no one would work there no matter how much it paid. But the major decisions are probably made in back on Earth, between the great powers that control space. For the most part living and working in space is pretty quiet, but when things go wrong there's a real sense of powerlessness. The space cops are almost entirely mall-cops or corporate security, with a few armed marshals guarding important craft. And nothing gets done without a conference call back to Earth.

4 — This is essentially a variant of the cyberpunk idea of corporate governance, and the idea of full-time criminals in this system amuses me. In this set-up everyone either works for one of the corporations, or for the International Space Authority, or is an observer from one of the Earth-based powers. A full-time criminal would be like a cubicle worker who spends 8 hours a day 5 days a week stealing office supplies, downloading corporate data onto portable media for sale on the black market, clogging the company intranet with spyware, letting people into the company vehicle pool, and dealing drugs in the staff lounge, and still aces all his performance reviews.

5 — You can still have space colonies in this setting. In this case a group of colonists would register as a corporation and lease a set of resources from the International Space Authority. As long as they pay their corporate taxes no one will care how they live their lives out on some backwater cluster of asteroids.

6 — The situation lasts until:

  1. One great power becomes dominant on Earth, and can clear up the situation in space.
  2. One coalition of space-based powers becomes strong enough to create an anti-pirate patrol and make the powers back home accept the patrol.
  3. The people who live and work in space stop identifying with the green hills of Earth, start identifying with the habitats of Jupiter Trojan L4 (Or wherever), and become willing to shoot anyone who tries to argue the point.
  4. All of the above.

Carla:

Ian's situation seems to me to be somewhat reminiscent of the Border reivers on the Anglo-Scottish border in the 16th century. That situation of blackmail, theft and violence carried on, with both governments and their officials either helpless or complicit, until 1603 when England and Scotland came under a unified crown for the first time (James I/VI). Whereupon James' government suddenly had an incentive to clear up the Border, and did so in a surprisingly short time.


Rick Robinson:

Ian — LOTS to chew on in that last reply! But on the first point, while this type of setting definitely puts humans at the front of the loop, I don't think it produces classical style 'space fighters.' The minimum crew for a boarding & inspection type mission would be (at a guess) three: a pair to board, watching each other's backs, and a third who stays aboard the patrol craft with a finger on the All Hell Breaks Loose button.

But this parallels your point about the familiar pirate image misleading us. The familiar image of space war is essentially (post-1588) sea battles on steroids. Real space conflict might be an entirely different beast, more like police work that occasionally explodes into urban warfare between rival cops.

I'm not even going to try to discuss the other points here in the comment thread, because it goes to the whole question of power politics in space. Which is, shall we say, a big question. :-)


Ian Moulding:

Carla: Yeah, there are a lot of similarities there. There are also similarities to policing in the 18th and 19th Century, particularly in New York City where police from rival boroughs used to fight in turf battles. Rival private firefighting groups also used to brawl over who had the right to put out housefires.

For that matter, think stagecoach robberies in the American West or highwaymen in England. When you really think about it, the peace and quiet of the 20th Century seems to be the anomaly here.

Rick: Who says the space fighter is firing missiles? Put the boarding crew (2 guys at a minimum, a squad of 4—6 may be more likely) into rocket-propelled space armour, give them harnesses with forced-entry gear, and fire 'em from an exterior missile rack. I wouldn't want to do that job — But I don't want to do a HALO jump either.

I've been driving myself nuts for months trying to set up a politically and economically viable setting for space piracy, and suddenly it all falls into place. I just ran a few basic spreadsheets and even a slow rate of space development produces a viable piracy threat by the mid-21st Century. The powersats produce 2% of Earth's power, the space population is 0.0001% of Earth's, and space mining provides maybe 5% of Earth's material needs. As long as no one hijacks one of the helium-3 tankers the great powers on Earth just don't care what happens. On the other hand, over 80% of the space population has spent the majority of their lives working, training, and living in space. They definitely care.

From Pirates in SPAAACE !!! - Reconsidered by Rick Robinson (2009)
THE ECOLOGY OF PIRACY

The practice of piracy involves more than a crippling shot, a boarding party, and a swift escape into the blackness of space. Even pirates must obey certain laws: the laws of economics, ecology, and political reality. Piracy has flourished in particular places, and follows a progression from simple outlawry to organized business (sometimes to the formalized status of privateer). Mutineers, hijackers, and other "wildcatting" pirates appear dashing, but successful long-term piracy requires intelligent, planned adaptation to conditions, like any other enterprise. In the words of the overused phrase, "there are old pirates and bold pirates, but there are few old, bold pirates."

The major feature distinguishing the business of piracy from the merchant's trade is its systematic acceptance of illegal violence to enhance the normal effort to buy low and sell high. Under certain conditions, the pirate entrepreneur may slip freely back into the merchant role. Like the merchant, the pirate requires a ship, a crew, a source of goods, and a market in which to sell them. He faces the same risks of accident, malfunction, and remoteness from aid in a crisis. His routine varies only as dictated by his status as an outlaw.

Poverty, mutiny, other crimes, or temperament can force experienced spacers into piracy as a livelihood. The illegal acquisition of a starship will be a relatively easy task for experienced spacers (albeit rather dangerous). Obvious approaches include hijacking, mutiny, and "skipping;" (ed note: skipping is running away to escape the bank's mortgage on your starship) a successful pirate might someday boast the funds for an outright purchase! An exchange of ships may sometimes be useful, when the crew's current vessel is damaged, "hot," or inadequately equipped.

What sort of ship suits the pirate's needs? The requirements of illicit space travel come into play here. Streamlining is essential for frontier refueling without recourse to port authorities (ed note: in-situ resource utilization, skimming a gas giant's atmosphere to get free fuel). Nav-tapes must be available from a "generate" program in the ship's computer. The jump-drive should be sufficient for rapid travel, but not so large as to require excessive crew. Piracy itself dictates hardpoints and turrets, plus space for cargo and captives (perhaps in low berths) (ed note: suspended animation). Superior avionics will detect nearby ships and altered transponders (ed note: to broadcast a fake ship ID) will lull the suspicions of both victims and police. Forged papers are, of course, a necessity if the ship is to survive long in patrolled space.

Realistically, very few pirate vessels will have all (or even a majority) of these facets. Scout/Couriers and Far traders will be most common in the "trade," with their integral hardpoints, streamlining, and jump 2 capability. Without bank payments, the costs of operating a starship are low: fuel can be skimmed from gas giants or remote oceans, and even a minor success will generate the few tens of thousands of credits needed for the crew, life-support, and maintenance. Prizes can be stripped of costly equipment or sold intact to illegal buyers. Kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and the fencing of valuable cargo can offer other sources of cash. There are major problems, however. Access to facilities, not their expense, is the key to on-going piracy. Basic ships stores can be extorted from casual traffic, purchased under a "cover" identity, or delivered through a second ship (willingly or under duress). Annual maintenance and repairs of battle damage will require lengthy stops in a class A or B port. Battle damage can be difficult to explain to port authorities (bear in mind that not everyone can be bribed, and not all those who can will stay bought). Secure maintenance can be a difficult and expensive proposition, and such bases will delimit the natural "ranges" of successful pirates. Without secure bases of operation, pirates will lead a hand-to-mouth existence, extorting or conning their way through groundside repairs, always one jump ahead of the fleet, having to abandon vessels with great frequency or operating unreliable ships increasingly prone to dangerous malfunctions. Pirates with such handicaps will be no match for the local authorities, armed merchantmen, or jealous rivals.

Personnel must be taken into consideration as well. Few ship's crew will care to spend their entire lives onboard ship, slowly accumulating money. Ship's crew must be given rest and recreation in port at frequent intervals, or they will soon desert or mutiny. In addition, pirate crews are not renowned for their high moral fiber or their extreme loyalty. Many a second-in-command has "promoted" himself with murder. Many crewmembers will get revenge for a slight (real or imagined) by betraying their ship and turning state's evidence. A captain who took command by mutiny could very well have set the precedent for his own downfall.

Pirates must seek out class A or B star-ports beyond the borders of major states, and controlled by authorities too weak or too immoral to bar suspected criminals from their facilities.

Pirates must also remember the cardinal rule: don't get greedy. If you become enough of a threat to business, either the business will go away, or somebody (not necessarily the law) will remove you as a threat. No matter how big you are, there's always somebody bigger, and it's usually a good idea not to attract their attention. In seeking prey, cost efficiency directs pirate attention to ports of Class C or better, with their higher volume of traffic. Such ports provide immediate targets for piracy, but also present the danger of a rapid response of authorities. A laden merchant is most securely looted at a distance from its last known location: intimidated. hijacked or lasered into compliance, a ship can be boarded and reprogrammed for jump to a nearby empty system, with time in hyper-space for a leisurely inventory of the take. The main problem with piracy is that a given region can only support so many "predators." If trade is disrupted too much, merchants will avoid the area, and the pirates will "starve." The analogy to nature can be carried further: Shepherds expect a few losses from their flocks as part of the cost of doing business. If wolves begin killing too many sheep, however, the shepherds will find it worth their while to organize a large-scale hunt to wipe the wolves out or drive them away.


Referees should bear in mind that the populations and governments of these worlds will not openly condone piracy, and will help in its extermination if it begins to cut too much into the circulation of trade in the region. Remember, a small, discretely run operation will be the most successful in the long run.

Inspiration can be drawn from the way pirates in the "real world" operated. Research the Caribbean pirates and privateers of the late 1600's and early 17OO's AD. Note in particular the career of Henry Morgan, a pirate/privateer for the first part of his career, then a pirate-catcher for the British in his later life.

From THE ECOLOGY OF PIRACY ON THE SPINWARD MAIN by Steven Sowards, The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No. 19 (1983)
MURDER HOBOS AND THE ECONOMICS OF PIRACY

(ed note: This is about piracy in a medieval world such as obtains in a role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. But it has some general principle that still apply in Rocketpunk. In such a game, a player group that rights wrongs and fights evil are called "heroes". A player group that just goes around killing people and monsters in order to steal their gold are called "murder hobos".)

Basic Pirate Market Speculation

Piracy is simply another form of market speculation, albeit an extremely violent one. When making the choice to raid a ship, or even become pirates at all, the would-be pirates make a conscious risk-reward calculation. The first tier of decision-making works something like this:

  • Never stealing a ship and declaring oneself a pirate is a valid and rational choice if the reward for high-seas thievery is very low. If nothing shipping is worth stealing or the risks involved are so high the reward is not worth that risk, the seas stay free of pirates.
  • But, if the rewards outweigh the risks, pirates! Pirate Captains make cold calculations before risking their precious resources of ship, weapons, magic, and men against the possible rewards of a good payout. Is the cargos worth it? Will naval forces catch the pirates mid-pirating? Is the ship they are eyeing armed? All valid questions which temper risks versus rewards before heaving ho.
  • In fact, if the rewards for piracy are enormous and the risk non-existent, governments get in on the piracy party — especially if high seas raiding gives heartburn to rival governments. Cash-strapped governments on constant war-footing, seeing a good investment opportunity, speculate with their tax base on state-sponsored sea-based theft. They authorize local mercenaries in their names and papers to commit high-seas piracy on their rivals and return a percentage cut of cargo sold back to the Crown. These profits (a higher % return than inflation) return back to the treasury to pay for more land-based wars.

Since Medieval societies must make constant food-vs-safety choices to allocate their few resources efficiently, the risk of sudden market failure (ie, a heavily armed and angry military ship capturing and killing pirates) is low, our economist warlock says. The kingdom lacks the coordinated naval resources to stop piracy whole-scale with brutal violence. But, are the rewards worth it? Economics is the study of scarcity in markets and when a good is scarce, the price rises accordingly. Something is scarce and therefore worth the risk. Pirates will not raid the high seas if they know merchants filled their holds of ships with packing peanuts.

Pirates weigh these possible factors before going about their pirating:

  1. Is the spotted ship worth taking over? A small skiff is unlikely to hold anything of interest. The enormous 100 gun military vessel is tasty but heavily armed. The sailing merchantman is the sweet spot — not too armed, but with enough payout to cover any losses, carry reasonable cargo, and make a profit.
  2. Will the pirates get caught mid-pirating or post-pirating by armed law enforcement? If so, that could go bad.
  3. Is the possible, unseen cargo in the merchantman worth possible traps, death, mayhem, and law enforcement?
  4. And, is there a buyer for that unseen mystery cargo?

The fourth question is the important question to ask. Every single take-over of a cargo-bearing ship is an extra market risk — the risks of law enforcement, of the ship carrying Murder Hobos (lots of armed fighters), of bad cargo. It’s like opening a present. It might be something good. It might be something bad. For all the pirates know, that merchantman is carrying either gold or Gnomes (combative monsters with no gold). Without careful application of magic — and here is where wizards ought to get involved, the economist warlock says — pirates take an investment gamble of time and resources on every attack.

The pirates are weighing probabilities, the economist warlock says. Knowing organized land-based buyers exist — ie, smugglers, black markets and customers — pirates are safely assuming something worthwhile floats in the holds of those round-bottom ships. Something people will pay for.

Clearly, between scarcity, low Naval policing presence, and eager buyers, the King has a piracy problem along his shore. He is offering successful Murder Hobos Letters of Marque to take the fight to the seas.

The question is: Why?

Creating a Market

During times of war and famine, local, noble-blooded landowners raise the price of wheat. It’s scarce, price finds a way, and the price rises with demand. The local landowners also force the their 0-level NPC bonded peasants, who grow the wheat, to sell a maximal amount of their wheat to the market for the maximum market profit. Scarcity is an awful time for the local people but a bonanza profit fountain for those at the top. Terrible thing about the peasants having to eat their shoe leather, the Earls and Dukes say at their huge banquets. We hope the famine breaks soon and we win the war.

While Medieval societies are closed and self-sufficient, as populations grow, societies bump into one another. One society might have starving peasants yet diamond mines for resurrection while the other has a bumper crop and a burgeoning magic item industry. So, they trade with each other. You give me food and I’ll give you diamonds. But trade also re-allocates resources in an economy and removes scarcity from core production products like cloth or food. These traded products become cheap commodities.

Governments pass laws to protect what little supplies they have to feed their peasants when supplies are low. After all, if the peasants all die, high profits or not, the rich won’t have anything to eat. They keep peasants around to make the food. But, then when the crisis passes, those laws hang around. High tariffs and protectionism lingers. Laws keep prices high. Those in charge won’t lower their tariff walls and allow foreign food to flow in and put downward pressure on their markets. They like money.

High tariffs and protectionism walls create opportunities for those who take the risks to reap the rewards. In this case, the Kingdom’s Earls and Dukes pressured the King to keep high tariff walls around the import of foreign wheat after the last spat of “unpleasantness” ended. The Kingdom experienced a wheat shortage due to bad harvest during the last round of wars with their neighbor. During the altercation, the nobles reaped fat profits off the backs of the peasant and merchant population. While the harvests are now healthy, wheat’s price is still high.

Now, pirates, seeing a lucrative speculative opening in wheat futures, are jumping foreign ships, stealing cargo, and dumping cheap foreign wheat on the docks into the hands of smugglers. The smugglers sell the wheat at high but still lower-than-controlled government market prices in black markets to the local populations. The local populations gets to eat. Money flows into the hands of pirates instead of nobles. The nobles become super irate.

And the Kingdom says:

  • First off, we need to get rid of these freebooters because they’re cutting into our bottom line;
  • Second, perhaps the Kingdom can take a cut of selling this extra foreign wheat by exploiting its own tariff and protectionism laws;
  • Third, we get to hassle our enemy, the foreign government.
  • Fourth, not a 0-level NPC peasant wins!

Thus and therefore, Murder Hobos now have in their hands a license to take a ship, go raid the high seas and rid the oceans of pirates in the name of the Kingdom. And high profits.

Pirates Have No Allegiance to Anyone

The Murder Hobos learn, while they’re off privateering, that each pirate ship is its own self-contained company in a highly competitive free and laissez-faire market. Pirates are individual, freelancing contractors who stand up their corporate concerns in this open, free market of speculation and food futures. Even those pirates with Letters of Marque in their pockets and tacit permission from their governments to create mayhem have no true allegiance to anyone except themselves. The market ensures everyone is an untrustworthy scoundrel.

The market offers both enormous rewards in treasure and XP and death. Perfect for the Murder Hobo on the go.

The warlock economist points out:

These pirates are competing over the same fixed pool of rewards. Pirate ship concerns (ie, actual physical pirates) will multiply and fill the ocean while risk remains low and reward remains high providing ample opportunities to level up. However, as pirates continue to enter the market, pirate ship numbers will reach an equilibrium when the risk to reward balance becomes near even and profit dries up. Killing pirates keeps this point further in the future but the allure will continue to draw perfectly good naval crews into lives of piracy.

At the equilibrium point, it becomes to everyone’s benefit — the pirates, the Murder Hobos, the governments wanting a cut – to push over the balance so the risk and reward moves from the fat, tasty merchantmen to the pirates themselves with their loads of fat cargo and pirate treasure. Then, pirate war breaks out. Strong pirate companies will eliminate weaker pirate private contractors. Pirates continue murdering other pirates until the market clears of competition and profit margins again rise. Rinse, repeat.

We can use pirates to kill pirates, the warlock economist says, by making more pirates. Pirates will prey on each other and kill off the weak to up their own rewards. This leaves only the richest behind for Murder Hobo consumption.

We need to create more pirates.

The warlock economist looks at the King’s Letters of Marque. She points out to the rest of her Murder Hobo crew another way to optimize their mission: corporate mergers. Take over ships and, instead of murdering the crew and taking their stuff as is the Murder Hobo way, force them to join a flag. Scale their corporate investment out horizontally. One ship can capture a certain amount of wheat and/or other pirates. Ten ships can capture ten ships worth of cargo back to haul to shore for profit. Scaling out lowers their pirate market risk while keeping their profits high. Losing one ship to an unfortunate merchantman trap is no longer a company-ending event. This builds an allure for more to go into piracy (thus making more pirates) and lowers our risk.

The Murder Hobos will be corporate officers and cut their own personal exposure to speculative market risk while their pirates take the brunt of their charge by, well, pirating. And what pirates wouldn’t want to join up? After all, the Murder Hobos are famous heroes with magic spells and weapons. They pose a clear market advantage over normal, scruffy Pirate Captains.

That way, the warlock economist says, other strong pirate ships will force weaker pirates to join their flag to compete in this new market. The pirates will go corporate to maximize the pirate effort. And next thing we know, we will have not only enormous profits but exciting and climatic multi-ship mega-battles on the high seas. Thus eliminating the pirate threat.

The Murder Hobos will simply corner the piracy market.

The Paladin, of course, objects to abusing their King’s Letters of Marque like this. That’s why the rest of the party leaves him on an island.

A year later, the Murder Hobos retire from their life of state-sponsored high seas terrorism rich as Lords. They leave behind their legends as Pirate Kings built on a loose yet massive amalgamated confederation of pirates and wheat. They built their Pirate Isle to store their reaped gold and magic. Perhaps the mission wasn’t carried out to spec but the Murder Hobos had lots of high seas fun.

The pirates aren’t destroyed. This scheme just makes more pirates. No amount of military force will kill speculators in an open market when speculation is possible. Speculation, like life, finds a way. The pirates prey on merchantmen and, then, when there are too many pirates, each other. The cycle continues with or without Murder Hobos.

The pirates finally disperse when the King lowers his wheat tariffs, signs a treaty with his rival foreign government, and wheat prices drop dramatically. Without the easy, fast, low risk, high reward profits of wheat, pirates don’t exist. Profit and danger-seekers go elsewhere — like turn ex-pirates into more Murder Hobos waiting in taverns for Questgivers to send them off to destroy smugglers on the docks. Something new is coming into town on the black market…

From MURDER HOBOS AND THE ECONOMICS OF PIRACY by multiplexer (2015)
INTERSTELLAR PIRATES PART 1: THE MERCHANT SHIPS

Introduction

Interstellar travel isn’t completely analogous to 16th century sea travel. For one, delicious air bathed ships even during the most dangerous voyages. The crew wasn’t at risk for explosive decompression from a bad bit of engineering or a poorly soldiered joint. But in many ways, one informs the other. Voyages faced imperious captains, perilous voyages, uncaring financial backers, and death if anything happened. The endless sea is a desert, as is the vacuum of space. No one survives a trip outside the small life-giving ship into the endless nothing.

Following 16th century age of sail, the first ships after the initial intrepid explorers into the great darkness are merchant ships – the miners, colonizers, point to point trade between the outworld colonies and the home base. Trade is the engine of exploration. It is the creator of fortunes. It is the economic pump that generates capital to build more merchant ships. There are things out there that are worth more back here. Humans do anything to get those goods between two points even if it means flinging humans in a metal tube into the darkness of space. Especially if it’s dangerous and somewhat lunatic.

If one group of humans drag precious cargo from point A to point B, another group will want it. They want to steal it, to sell it, keep it, to roll around in it while yelling obscenities. And another group of humans will protect it with guns and swords.

Disclaimer: Relativity is a thing that exists. There’s a fascinating economic problem about relativity, space travel, and crew member payment. How does one pay the crew on a regular schedule when the relativistic local time for the ship does not match the relativistic local time for the bank back home? Does one calculate maximum possible crew pay over the ship and load the ship’s local bank with cash? How does one transmit cash at relativistic speeds? What happens if the communication is lossy? Or the bank goes out of business? Or the corporation goes out of business? For simplicity, much like the 16th century, the corporation pays merchant sailors before the voyage and on return home. The rest of it is details.

The TB Corporation

Neither the sailors, nor the captain, nor his officers own the ship. TB Corporation owns the ship and everything on it.

Standard employees from the TB Corporation don’t venture into space. They stay at home. They dwell in their enormous glass-paned high rise calculating shipping routes, mining trips, and round trips for the highest possible profit margin. They’re a publicly traded company. Their first obligation is to the shareholders. Not to the officers and crew of the many ships they fling out into space.

The corporation supplies the capital for building the ship, providing upgrades, continuing maintenance, provisions, advances on crew pay, negotiations for terms of delivery and freight, and, importantly, finding customers on both ends of the voyage. They deal with advertising, goods delivery, and fulfillment.

The voyages return with ores, minerals, and rare alien artifacts. Those have Earth-based buyers. The corporation sells the goods at sufficient profit to cover the cost of voyages – plus some.

TB Corp officers have no desire to ever board one of their merchant ships. They know the rate of success versus the rate of death. They stay on Earth where it’s warm and comfortable, and where they have large plush carpeted offices in that glass-paned high rise. They outsource all the risk to their captains. Why die for profits when someone else is willing to do so in their employ?

When the ships, officers and crews are in dock – on Earth, at a colony, or a refueling station between – the TB Corp sees, evaluates, and judges crewmembers on performance. But when the ship is in flight, the TB Corp loses all control. Yes, the captain radios back (at the oh so slow speed of light) various cheerful status updates. The ship itself chirps automated updates back home, too. But, the captain and his or her crew are alone in the darkness of space. And savvy Captains can hack computer systems.

The Captain can radio back anything he or she wants. Meanwhile, has she eaten the crew as a delicacy? Sure. Fed the crew to aliens? Why not. Turned to piracy? Maybe. Who knows? All TB Corp knows is everything is well.

Status is the Captain’s and crew’s hands.

This is the principal-agent problem. A self-interested agent works on behalf of a principal, and the agent has more information than the principal does. The agent has the leverage. The principal has to decide to take the risk on the agent to see the job through despite the lack of information.

Once the ship leaves dock, TB Corp is in the dark. The voyage is in the hands of the Captain and her crew.

Imperious Captains and Efficient Autocracy

Starships maintain a strict hierarchy of leadership from the crew to the officers to the Captain. Captain and officers are employees. Crewmembers are not.

Most crewmembers are contractors. They join on one end of the voyage, traverse a leg, and hope to find work on the other side, either at one of the many spacedocks or at a growing space colony. They roll off in dock. They’re paid 1/3rd of their wages on joining and the 2/3rds on delivery. They sign a contract, undergo whatever horrors TC Corporation contractually demands, board, and leave. They’re the kind who look for a few months or years of hardship for a better life in an off-world colony than what they found on Earth. And, the contractual pay is decent.

Meanwhile, in flight, the principal-agent problem invites all kinds of crewmember opportunism. During the voyage, the absolute masters of the ship are far away, out of sight, and depending on technological solutions to mitigate the risk (on-board cameras, radio’d updates, tracking systems) our of mind. Crewmembers can take advantage of the situation. To extort more money or power, they can stop maintaining the ship. They can damage cargo to impact voyage profitability by jettisoning it out the airlock. They can rig the computer systems to vend endless ice cream, depleting fixed ship supplies of dairy and sugar. They can steal the ship and keep the cargo profits for themselves.

To prevent this, the TB Corp centralizes all on-board power in the Captain’s hands. The Captain directs crewmember tasks, distributes on-board supplies, and controls discipline and punishment. If the ship is highly automated, the crew is quite small. The Captain monitors the crew through cameras and electronics implanted in crewmember’s brain. If the ship is older, larger, or requires constant maintenance, the crew expands. The Captain must delegate to trusted officers control over discipline, work rotation, and punishment.

And punishment in space is not nothing. It runs the gamut from a reduction in allowable rations on board for a fixed duration all the way to throwing a crewmember out an airlock. Outside Earth’s atmosphere, in the darkness of space, international law cannot dictate how a Captain treats crewmembers. An imperious Captain may resort to corporal and psychological punishments to keep the crew in line on a long voyage between Earth and a colony. The TB Corporation cares about delivery. It replaces crewmembers on either side of the voyage.

That said, if the Captain injures or murders all his or her crewmembers on a voyage, no one will survive to complete it. The Captain must ensure he or she has a healthy enough crew to make it to one docking station to another while maintaining strict discipline.

TB Corporation must also worry about aligning Captain-Corporation interests. What goes for the crew also goes for her Captain. The Captain is also subject to the principal-agent problem.

The TB Corporation has a few levers to pull to maintain control over her ship’s Captains:

  • TB Corp offers profit sharing and incentives on successful deliveries. A successful voyage pays out in a sizable bonus for her Captain and smaller bonuses for the officers;
  • TB Corp also pays the Captain and the officers salary on top of the shares;
  • With some older ships, TB Corp offers successful Captains partial ownership of the ship. The Captain is not only an employee but an owner on the voyage;
  • TB Corp offers the Captain’s family special incentive back home. The Captain feels indebted to the Corporation and it’s magnificence.

Too Much Autocracy

The TB Corporation infuses the Captain with absolute autocratic control over the ship’s crew to prevent the principal-agent problem. Unlimited power in a vacuum can turn into unlimited evil. Captains are economically incentivized to ensure that the voyage completes, crew alive or dead. As rational economic actors, they may prey on their own crew to get what they want to ensure success.

And Captain predation takes several forms:

  • The Captain cuts down on crewmember rations to goose the profitability of the trip;
  • The Captain cuts down on crewmember rations so the Captain and her Officers have more to eat at the tail end of the voyage while crewmembers starve;
  • The Captain takes on unauthorized contraband at a refilling dock and beats any crewmembers who try to report it to TB Corp;
  • The Captain uses his or her absolute control over crewmember discipline and punishment to “settle scores” with crewmembers.

TB Corporation laces the ship with automated systems to report the status on fuel, rations, and pay during the voyage . Automated regulation systems help cut down Captain predation. But the Captain has the override codes. He or she can press crewmembers to hack the system and change the logs. Sneaky hackers can fool well-understood electronic systems. And some actions happen in flight the TB Corp cannot see. In space, no one can hear a crewmember scream.

And who can tell what happened in the flight? Unless a system recorded an interaction, it’s a game of he-said, she-said. And the Captain, a paid TB Corp Employee, always wins.

Mutiny?

If the relationship between Captain and crew deteriorates, the crew will try mutiny.

Mutiny is a tricky thing. The crew is on a ship full of monitoring electronics. TB Corp wired crewmember brains into the ship’s monitoring and regulations systems. The Captain has a million screens and readouts.

It is possible. Only a small number of ships ever experience a successful mutiny. If even one crewmember wavers on committing mutiny, the mutiny fails. It’s everyone together or it’s a failed coup.

Mutiny faces a standard collective action problem. If everyone agrees they must remove the Captain for the good of the ship, mutiny often succeeds. The plan is complex, but the plan works. One Captain against an entire ship of angry crewmembers cannot stand. But it means getting everyone on board with violent action, including the ship’s Officers. If the Officers waver, the mutiny fails. If one Officer knows the plan and decides against mutiny at the last moment, he or she will inform the Captain. The Captain, in his or her autocratic right, uses the ship against the mutineers, and later spaces the mutiny’s leaders.

If the mutineers are successful, and they override TB Corp’s control systems before it decides to abort the voyage and drain all the air from the life support systems, the mutineers will find themselves the proud owners of a space ship. Where they go from there is up to them.

They can….

  • … finish the voyage and try to get full profits from TB Corp who will likely have them killed;
  • … turn and go to some other space colony and sell their cargo underground;
  • … join a space colony and abandon the ship;
  • … or attempt to join the growing community of space pirates who prey along the known Earth to colony routes.

If the mutiny works, Space Adventurers have a ship. And now, with all this background, the game play begins.

On Interstellar Merchant Shipping, PCs and Game World Design

Why don’t PCs pool their resources together, buy a ship, and start flying from the outset? Why must TB Corporation (or a myriad of other corporations) own the star ships and play gate keeper?

Merchant shipping is not as simple as moving goods from point A to point B.

  • First, point B must exist, and point B is expensive to establish. If TB Corporation pays billions to build an off-world colony, they’re not going to let anyone show up and transact at their port. That’s TB Corp registered ships only.
  • And, the TB Corporation establishes relationships with merchants on both sides of point A and point B. These, too, are expensive, requires a reputation to get the best deals, and must contend with TB Corp’s monopoly and local laws.
  • As voyages are expensive and risky, the TB Corporation floats the costs of the star voyages on enormous lines of credit. This is out of reach for regular PCs except for those who are “Lords of Capitalism”.
  • Building and buying a ship is, itself, a pretty expensive proposition. Doable but…
  • Getting the personal reputation to sell goods at a profit is pretty expensive, too.

In a world with economically reinforcing game design, it’s difficult for the PCs to simply “own a ship” without their own cash, reputation, or their own corporation.

But all is not lost. PCs can pool resources to buy a small ship and sell goods at shadow economy docks where people will buy anything for anyone. They’ll need to somehow come by the coordinates and contacts in the underground community. And, they’ll need to compete with the big boys who will do everything they can to squeeze the little guys out of the system. It’s a difficult road to walk.

This sets up tension and conflict, and conflict is interesting.

PCs can get into the game in these ways:

  1. PCs as Captain and Officers in the employ of the Corporation. Easiest way to start with a ship is to start with a ship. The crewmembers are mere red shirts. The PCs initally run their ship for their corporation. Perhaps later, not so much. The corporation sends the PCs to interesting destinations. Gets them into fights with pirates. Gets them in contact with the shadow economy. Deals with morally dubious corporations, their sensing electronics, their laws, and their policies.
  2. PCs as crewmembers in the employ of the Corporation. The Captain and Officers are amoral agents of a faceless corporation. The PCs move from voyage to voyage as Adventurer Contractors. They go to interesting space ports or fly to interesting colonies. Maybe the PCs go to colony to colony to explore/adventure and then hitch a ride on the next corporate ship to the next destination.
  3. PCs as Space Marines in the employ of the Corporation. The Captain and Officers are still amoral agents of a faceless corporations. The corporation takes the PCs from colony to colony and parachutes them into trouble spots to kill aliens while the ship completes its merchant mission. They’re more than crewmembers and less than officers – they’re the military contingent glued to a civilian merchant mission. And, the PCs kill every hostile alien in the merchant’s way.
  4. PCs have a ship from a successful mutiny. The PCs have a ship. They’ve dismantled all the corporation’s monitoring protocols. They’re in the darkness of space. They have dwindling supplies. Now they’re Captain, Officers and crew of their own vessel. How do they join the pirate economy? Is there one? How do they get there? What next?

Also, the world design requires a few working corporations! Here, the TB Corporation is:

  • Wealthy enough to build ships and establish off-world colonies;
  • Also wealthy enough to maintain those ships and hire crews to run them;
  • And wealthy enough to dictate trade laws on both the home world and the colony;
  • Monopolistic in bent;
  • Technologically advanced to casually implant tracking devices in contractor brains;
  • Amoral and access to unlimited banking;
  • Home-world bound as its headquarters.

Nothing was said about what the miners mine in the off-world colonies or what TB Corporation ships between colonies and the home world. Tweak that knob; they might ship interstellar cheese or they might ship interstellar narcotics. They might ship narcotics inside the cheese. Maybe it ships human replicants for offworld colonies addicted to offworld interstellar cheese which acts as a replicant narcotic.

Setting the knob is important. It dictates the amorality of the corporation itself. The corp is already amoral and profit seeking. But, the corporation is willing to look the other way at Captain predation on the crew if the cargo is truly morally reprehensible.

INTERSTELLAR PIRATES PART 2: THE PIRATE CAPTAIN AND CREW!

The adventurers stole a ship! The adventurers mutinied, snuck on board and hacked it out from under watchful AIs, or swindled a ship in a card game. They got their hands on a ship and got away with it. Congratulations! Sure, space faring merchant companies, interstellar authorities, and other swindlers are after them. But, now, floating around in the inky blackness of space, they’re free.

And it feels great. Freedom!

Yet, if the adventurers are to survive, they’re going to need money, places to dock, and a plug-in to the black market. Provisioning ships is expensive. While starship holds are massive, ships require power to survive over the days and years. The crew of the ship must feed the ship’s hungry maw for power and supplies.

Out there, somewhere, in space, are ships carrying huge, juicy loads of rich “stuff.” And someone where, unsavory folks on the hard edges of space faring society are willing to buy booty from claims from pirate ships. And those big, fat, heavily loaded Merchant Ships also carry cash.

The Prizes

Pirate ships that only capture small prizes aren’t economically efficient. The effort in stealing a ship, crewing it, maintaining it, and alluding the law costs more than a small ship. Considering the overhead of offloading prizes on a black market, a diet in small ships cannot feed the open hungry maw of running a ship. Pirates who only take out the small guys aren’t going to last long.

A higher appetite for risk – and large prizes – makes pirates economically viable. Pirates search out Merchant ships hauling unique substances, valuable AI, and research that goes for a mint on a black market. There’s always a buyer somewhere off in the shadows.

A successful pirate ship preys on the biggest and fattest Merchant Men in space. Yet, the bread and butter of successful pirates are the medium-sized ships. Those medium-sized ships haul enough to make piracy worthwhile. They keep the pirate ship viable through selling illegally gained cargos on the black markets. They pay enough to fuel the ship and pay the crew.

Successful pirates with big appetites for risk dream the dream. The big score. That one huge hit. The big hustle. The win. That giant payout which ensures they can retire to some opulent outward colony. They won’t have to keep a rickety stolen ship afloat while angry corporations pursue them across time and space. They’ll be space kings.

Yes, those big scores are exceedingly rare. And, they’re well defended by heavily armed space marines. And the pirates might all die trying to take it. But what if they take big one?

What if?

While dreaming of the big prize, pirates stick with their ship. They make more money in piracy than in merchant shipping. The payouts are better. They’re living a more expensive lifestyle. And if they happen to hit that one big score… right around the corner… the next ship is the one

The Captain and the Quartermaster

Piracy is all about capturing those prizes.

Pirate ships are free of the principal-agent problem. Pirates stole their ship! The captain is not beholden to some distant corporation or entity. The economic incentives of the crew align with the health and well-being of themselves. They have no distant owners who watch their every move.

But anarchy does not serve pirate ships well. An anarchic pirate ship is a dead pirate ship. Someone must run the show. Someone has to decide:

  • Where to go;
  • Which ships to engage;
  • How to engage the ships;
  • How to elude authorities;
  • How to react to being attacked;
  • And how to offload the booty once taken.

That someone is the autocratic captain. He or she makes snap decisions in the heat of battle. Conflicting voices while authorities are opening fire or boarding make it impossible to fight back.

That someone maintains ship discipline, decides how the crew gets paid, and throws unruly crewmembers out the airlock. Just like a Merchant ship, an unruly crewmember who won’t complete their assignments imposes risk on the mission, the crew, and the entire ship. Pirates don’t bow to any kind of interstellar law when dealing with discipline issues. They’re likely to simply kill the offender. And pirates are replaceable. Since pirates pay better than merchant expeditions, someone in dock is always willing to join up for the next pirating flight.

The need for a captain poses a dilemma for pirates (and adventurers). On one hand, pirates have a clear need for a strong authority figure to maintain control when the guns fire and the space marines burn holes in the ship’s hull with lasers. On the other hand, the point of pirating is freedom is escape from the heavy-handed autocratic dystopian universe of the corporate-owned Merchant ship.

A solution presents itself. Instead of suffering under an imposed captain, pirates democratically elect one from their ranks. As pirates are both the principals and the agents – they work for themselves and their own profits — a democratically elected captain ensures the pirates get exactly the captain they desire. Should the captain go berserk and murder the crew, the crew can space the captain and elect a new one from their ranks.

The crew decides how much power a captain has. And, they can take it away.

But, there’s another problem. If a captain has autocratic power, even elected autocratic power, they can wield autocratic power in peacetime. Autocratic power in the heat of battle helps pirate success. But, once the battle ends, the pirates face a giant pile of booty and boredom. Who decides how to split the take? Who decides how to allocate provisions? The captain? Won’t he or she take it all for themselves?

Pirates impose another check on the captain: the quartermaster.

The pirates elect the quartermaster from their ranks. Imbuing the quartermaster with equal power as the captain, pirates split power on two axis:

  • The captain has autocratic power over combat and crew discipline;
  • The quartermaster has autocratic power over apportioning onboard goods, balances the books, and adjudicates conflicts between the crew and the captain.

Pirates elect the nastiest, skeeziest, evilest son of a bitch in space as their pirate captain. But, the pirates also elect the most level-headed and educated for their quartermaster. The system of checks and balances ensures the pirate ship runs smoothly both in battle and during the long, boring stretches in space.

In peace time, the quartermaster checks the pirate captain’s rampant larceny. Yes, the quartermaster agrees, the captain should shove this crewmember out the airlock. The quartermaster also acts as a judiciary. And, the quartermaster ensures equal apportionment of the prize among the crew.

In times of battle, the captain has all the power.

The crews prize blood lust in captains and sanity in quartermasters. The crew can depose and maroon a pirate captain for a lack of sufficient battle-induced insanity. After all, the crew signed on with the ship hoping for a big score. If the captain cannot provide even the medium scores that keep the ship running, the crew will replace him with someone who will get the job done. But, if the captain oversteps his or her authority, or is too insane, the crew will shove the captain out the airlock and elect a new one.

Checks and balances.

And sometimes, the crew promotes their quartermaster to captain should the quartermaster show sanity and insanity in equal portions. Then they elect a new quartermaster.

Pirate Constitutions

While the quartermaster keeps the captain in check and vice versa, what keeps the quartermaster and captain from colluding and preying on the crew together? Where does one job end and the other begin? What jobs are crew-only and officer-only? What are the various crimes and punishments? Isn’t this a democratically-controlled ship?

Technically, pirate ships are outside of all law. They’re outside of any interstellar law, or colonial law, or homeworld law. Pirates stole their ship. They’re now nationless – and lawless. Nothing from home applies. If a captain and quartermaster collude, the crew loses.

The crew has an easy fix. They make some new laws.

Ships forge their own constitutions. When one has no nation, one makes their ship their nation. And a nation needs laws. Laws find their foundations in their founding constitutional documents.

Each pirate ship has a constitution with a different set of laws. Generally, a pirate ship constitution covers:

  • What the captain can and cannot do on the vessel;
  • Apportioning profits from taking a prize;
  • The payment for injuries sustained in battle (if survived);
  • The laws for crime, discipline and punishment;
  • The strict roles and responsibilities for the quartermaster;
  • The strict roles and responsibilities for the captain.

These constitutions require unanimous agreement before adoption. Even a single voice forces the crew to rewrite the document and try again.

The constitutions often have clauses dealing with indivisible booty with no clear buyer. In these cases – often the ships taken as prize themselves, but also rogue research, cutting edge AIs, single-use bioweapons, kidnap victims from ships, and other high price single items – the constitutions state the large prizes must go to auction at a black market dock. The quartermaster divides the sale price of the ship at auction among the crew and dictated in the ship’s constitution. What happens to these items once they find their way into the black market is not their business.

This ensures the crew doesn’t fight over payment. Of course, equal apportionment encourages crew free riding. Crew members can perform minimal work but get maximal payout as guaranteed in the ship’s constitution. To mitigate, the constitutions often add in systems for bonuses. While a free riding crew member will get paid from a prize, a crew member who performed valiantly in battle or in another service receives a bonus.

When multiple ships join together in a pirate flotilla, the captains and quartermasters agree on articles of confederation among the ship crews. They’ll forge a larger document. They will balance the needs between ship captains, ships, and prizes gained across the fleet. If enough ships join under a flotilla flag, they’ll write an overarching document covering all their ships.

They will form a pirate nation. A democratic Pirate Nation with an Elected King. As single ships, they are prey for corporations and interstellar authorities. As a group, they’re unstoppable.

Laws have their way…

Space Pirates in a Game

Pirates are blood thirsty murderers who murder innocent crews and destroy property. Pirates are space highway bandits. They’re also adventurers. Adventures who get into all kinds of trouble, get into exciting fights with authorities, and make vast sums of cash on one interesting take.

Pirates are also gameable. A few variations on the straight up pirate theme, interstellar or not:

  • PCs are pirates. They have a ship. They stole it in their backstory somehow. Perhaps they deposed the previous pirate captain. Either way, one is now captain. The others are officers with one as a quartermaster. A bunch of red shirt mooks work as the crew. PCs attack merchant shipping for the money and the XP. And maybe they’ll kidnap a mysterious corporate figure or find a bizarre alien map and head off toward the big score…
  • PCs are privateers. They work like pirates, except in the name of their nation or their corporation. They’re quasi-legal. They need to balance out the needs of absentee owners with a crew of bloodthirsty pirates. But they also attack ships flying different flags. And they capture a ship and learn about a rival corporation’s ugly plans which involves aliens, war, and death across the quadrant…
  • PCs are smugglers at a black market space port, which they use as their home base. They’re not pirates and their not corporate or interstellar cops. But they trade in the underbelly of goods and services both need. They go on dangerous missions to get what people want, and they’re the buyers at pirate auctions laying their hands on rare and interesting plans…
  • PCs are the law. Pirates are nasty and brutish thugs. They prey on innocent shipping and attack colonies. Stopped and destroy them!
  • PCs are pure adventurers. They join one crew, go on an adventure, get off at a space port, and then join another crew and go on another adventure. They hop from one port to another in search of riches, adventure, and aliens.

Interstellar space with, presumably, some kind of Star Wars or Star Trek like warp to allow space pirates to zoom around and attack shipping, adds a few extra spins on the idea:

  • Space is full of derelict space stations and pirate off-world colonies for pirates to hide and set up shop. These are weird corner places full of scum and villainy;
  • With all the money taken from big prizes, pirates off-world colonies are surprisingly opulent;
  • With enough ships in a flotilla in space, pirates set up their own space nations with their own constitutions and laws. These laws extend to pirate space stations, pirate colonies, and pirate black markets. These might even morph into real nations in space with their space hubs at their center.
  • PCs forge their own constitutions for their own extra-legal ships. And they compete with other NPC pirates for crew and supplies. Maybe those NPC pirates want to join their flag, and adopt their constitutions…

That said, adventurers who go the PC or smuggler routes must learn about where the pirate derelict space stations lie. No one is advertising these publicly. They have to get to port. They have to milk contacts. They have to refuel. They have to think scrappy.

Once adventurers work out their home port and their provisions, they have to figure out the right routes with the right prey. They need contacts to sell their ill-gotten goods. Then, once they get bigger, they must get accepted into pirate nations. Otherwise those aggressive rival pirate captains will squish them flat. And maybe, they have to take over the pirate nations and become pirate kings.

And space is big. Really big.

The first adventure, once the PCs have a ship, is:

Now what?

EARTHMAN, COME HOME: FUEL-LESS SHIP = PIRACY

(ed note: In Cities in Flight, their gravity control technology grows more efficient as the mass of the ship increases. So most of the ships are actual cities, chopped off at bedrock, and flying from star to star. They are sort of the migrant laborer's of the galaxy, with the Earth cops considering the Okie cities to be little better than tramps. The cities are powered by uranium and plutonium. In the story, Mayor Amalfi of New York is flying his Okie citie across The Rift, a wide area with no stars except for one wild star. The crossing is going to take about a hundred years.)

"Nothing on that side. Lots of nothing."

Amalfi moved the switch again.

On the screen, apparently almost within hallooing distance, a city was burning.

It was all over in a few minutes. The city bucked and toppled in a maelstrom of lightning. Feeble flickers of resistance spat around its edges—and then it no longer had any edges. Sections of it broke off and melted like wraiths. From its ardent center, a few hopeless life craft shot out into the gap; whatever was causing the destruction let them go. No conceivable life ship could live long enough to get out of the Rift.

Dee cried out. Amalfi cut in the audio circuit, filling the control room with a howl of static. Far behind the wild blasts of sound, a tiny voice was shouting desperately, "Rebroadcast if anyone hears us. Repeat: We have the fuelless drive. We're destroying our model and evacuating our passenger. Pick him up if you can. We're being blown up by a bindlestiff. Rebroadcast if—"

Then there was nothing left but the skeleton of the city, glowing whitely, evaporating in the blackness. The pale, innocent light of the guide beam for a Bethé blaster played over it, but it was still impossible to see who was wielding the weapon. The Dinwiddie circuits in the proxies were compensating for the glare, so that nothing was coming through to the screen that did not shine with its own light.

The terrible fire died slowly, and the stars brightened. As the last spark flared and went out, a shadow loomed against the distant star-wall. Hazleton drew his breath in sharply.

"Another city! So some outfits really do go bindlestiff! And we thought we were the first ones out here!"

"Mark," Dee said in a small voice. "Mark, what is a bindlestiff?"

"A tramp," Hazleton said, his eyes still on the screen. "The kind of outfit that gives all Okies a bad name. Most Okies are true hobos, Dee; they work for their living wherever they can find work. The bindlestiff lives by robbery—and murder."

His voice was bitter. Amalfi himself felt a little sick. That one city should destroy another was bad enough; but it was even more of a wrench to realize that the whole scene was virtually ancient history. Ultrawave transmission was somewhat faster than light, but only by about 25 per cent; unlike the Dirac transmitter, the ultraphone was by no means an instantaneous communicator. The dark city had destroyed its counterpart years ago, and must now be beyond pursuit. It was even beyond identification, for no orders could be sent now to the lead proxy which would result in any action until still more years had passed.

"Some outfits go bindlestiff, all right," he said. "And I think the number must have been increasing lately. Why that should be, I don't know, but evidently it's happening. We've been losing a lot of legitimate, honest cities lately—getting no answer to Dirac casts, missing them at rendezvous, and so on. Maybe now we know why."

"I've noticed," Hazleton said. "But I don't see how there could be enough piracy to account for all the losses. For all we know, the Vegan orbital fort may be out here, picking off anybody who's venturesome enough to leave the usual commerce lanes."

"I didn't know the Vegans flew cities," Dee said.

"They don't," Amalfi said abstractedly. He considered describing the legendary fort, then rejected the idea. "But they dominated the galaxy once, before Earth took to space flight. At their peak they owned more planets than Earth does right now, but they were knocked out a hell of a long time ago. . . . I'm still worried about that bindlestiff, Mark. You'd think that some heavy thinker on Earth would have figured out a way to make Diracs compact enough to be mounted in a proxy. They haven't got anything better to do back there."

Hazleton had no difficulty in penetrating to the real core of Amalfi's grumbling. He said, "Maybe we can still smoke 'em out, boss."

"Not a chance. We can't afford a side jaunt."

"Well, I'll send out a general warning on the Dirac," Hazleton said. "It's barely possible that the cops will be able to invest this part of the Rift before the 'stiff gets out of it."

"That'll trap us neatly, won't it? Besides, that bindlestiff isn't going to leave the Rift, at least not until it's picked up those life craft."

"Eh? How do you know?"

"Did you hear what the SOS said about a fuelless drive?"

"Sure," Hazleton said uneasily, "but the man who knows how to build it must be dead by now, even if he escaped when his city was blasted."

"We can't be sure of that—and that's the one thing that the 'stiff has to make sure of. If the 'stiffs get ahold of that drive, there'll be all hell to pay. After that, 'stiffs won't be a rarity any more. If there isn't widespread piracy in the galaxy now, there will be—if we let the 'stiffs get that no-fuel drive."

"Why?" Dee said.

"I wish you knew more history, Dee. I don't suppose there were ever any pirates on Utopia, but Earth once had plenty of them. They eventually died out, thousands of years ago, when sailing ships were replaced by fueled ships. The fueled ships were faster than sailing vessels—but they couldn't themselves become pirates because they had to touch civilized ports regularly to coal up. They could always get food off some uninhabited island, but for coal they had to visit a real port. The Okie cities are in the same position now; they're fueled ships. But if that bindlestiff can actually get its hands on a no-fuel drive—so he can sail space without having to touch civilized planets for power metals—well, we just can't allow it to happen, that's all. We've got to get that drive away from them."

Hazleton stood up, kneading his hands nervously. "That's perfectly true—and that's why the 'stiff will knock itself out to recapture those lifeships. You're right, Amalfi. Well, there's only one place in the Rift where a lifeship could go, and that's to the wild star. So the 'stiff is probably there, too, by now—or on the way there." He looked thoughtfully at the screen, once more glittering only with anonymous stars. "That changes things. Shall I send out the Dirac warning, or not?"

From EARTHMAN, COME HOME by James Blish (1955), book 3 of the Cities in Flight series
SPACE SKIMMER: FUEL-LESS SHIP = PIRACY

(ed note: In Space Skimmer, there used to a galactic empire. It collapsed about five hundred years ago for unclear reasons. Shortly before the collapse, a new type of starship had been invented, the Space Skimmers. Unlike conventional starships, these ships were constructed out of force fields instead of metal. They were self-repairing, and could gather the energy they needed for fuel by making a close pass by a sun.)

“Why is it that the Empire is still active in this area?” asked Ike. “Everywhere else we’ve been, the Empire is only a memory.”

“Part of it is geography,” Edelith answered. “Here, we’re nearer to the core of the galaxy. The stars are closer to each other; an interstellar flight between two neighbors is not as big a jump as it would be farther out.

“When the Empire collapsed, it only meant the collapse of long-distance communications; local trade still continued. For us, local trade covers an area which includes forty-three inhabited planets.” She shifted her position on the chaise, straightened slightly. “The average journey between stars is only a few days — in your skimmer, only a few hours — but out in the spiral arms, a journey could be days or months, even for you.”

Mass asked, “You haven’t tried at all to reestablish contact with any of the other Empire Stations?”

She shook her head. “The numbers aren’t right.”

“Eh?”

“The human race is spread too thin throughout the galaxy. It’s spread too thin even among our own planets; we have too few governments with the necessary populations or wealth.”

Ike put in: “There is an important social equation involved here. Individually, no planet has the wealth to mount the effort of rebuilding the Empire; it takes the collective wealth of many planets — but in order to achieve that kind of cooperation, you need the kind of communications that only an already established Empire can provide.

“A planet has to have a population of at least one billion people, with a gross product per person of at least ten thousand credits per year in order to be able to afford the technology capable of building and maintaining a profitable starship; an empire requires at least twenty such populations in order to maintain communications between a community of one hundred stellar systems.”

“And even then, they’re spreading themselves pretty thin,” remarked Edelith. “But trade and communications are an aid to growth; eventually their investment should pay for itself.”

Ike added, “The equation is determined by the length of time it takes to travel from one star to another. Before the synthesis of the skimmer, the critical factor was one light-year every three days.”

“The skimmers must have upset that equation drastically,” Edelith mused. “Economic values on too many planets were determined by false scarcity of certain trade items. With the sudden explosion of information and commerce that the skimmers represented, there must have been economic and political chaos. We’ll never know how much chaos, though; the Empire’s communications collapsed before the skimmers’ effects were fully felt.”

Mass didn’t pay any attention to that There was something else on his mind. “Wait a minute,” he said. “There are lots of planets with large populations and within range of each other — wouldn’t they be able to pool their resources?”

Edelith considered it. “It sounds good, Mass, but it doesn’t work that way. A culture has to reach a threshold level of production; after that, it requires only the willingness to accomplish the deed. Below that threshold level, there’s no way to ‘pool resources.’ Above it, there’s no need.

“There’re probably many areas in the galaxy where neighboring star systems have maintained communications — like the area around Liadne; but the Empire at its height comprised more than 11,000 planets. Most of them were thinly populated — oh, most people lived fairly well; according to the history texts, there were a great deal of resources available for just a very few people — but the equation requires a certain amount of manpower as well as a speci6c level of production. Too many of the Empire planets fell below those levels.”

“Then the Empire doesn’t exist any more, any-where...?”

“Probably not,” said Edelith. “We are living in what historians of the future will probably call ‘The Galactic Dark Ages’.”

“Dark Ages?” asked Tapper. “Doesn’t that mean a time of no knowledge?”

“It means an interruption in the gathering of knowledge, or a loss of knowledge from the general usage of a culture. In our case, the knowledge isn’t lost — it’s just spread out. It only remains to be gathered up again. This skimmer —” She gestured about her, “— is the perfect vehicle for such a task.”

"Excuse me,” said Ike. “It was the skimmers that were responsible for the collapse of the Empire in the first place.”

“Huh?” That was Mass.

Edelith echoed his bewilderment, “Why do you say that?”

“Because it appears to be true. I have been considering your statement, Edelith. You said that economic values on too many planets were determined by the false scarcity of certain trade items. I assumed you meant the scarcity which is derived from inefficient transport systems, in this case, the pre-skimmer lightships. As you postulated, the efficiency of the skimmer would destroy those values and create economic chaos — with political upheavals following as well However, I do not think you realize the scope of those political upheavals because you fail to realize the power of the skimmers.”

Both Mass and Edelith were staring, “Go on,” Edelith whispered.

“The pre-skimmer lightships,” said Ike, “were in-efficient in a way much more important to the stability of the Empire than the one-light-year-every-three-days limitation: they had to have a home base. They were tied down to a high-level technology because only a high-level technology could refuel and maintain a lightship.

"A lightship is an ecological dead-end,” explained the construct. “It has to be supported, it cannot support itself. The energy-refining equipment to manufacture its power cells could cover several hundred square miles. No ship could comprise that much technology within its hull,” said Ike, “—until the skimmers. The skimmers are self-supporting.”

“My God, yes —” Edelith’s face was pale. Mass blinked in astonishment.

"You should have realized it, Mass; this craft not only has almost unlimited speed — it has unlimited range as well. We can travel anywhere because we can refuel with anything. Think of the effect that knowledge must have had on a Captain four hundred years ago. Suddenly he no longer had to be responsible to his home planet — not economically, not politically. He was a free agent, master of his own ship, captain of his own destiny; he was as independent as a man could be. Once he was in space with his skimmer, there was no way that anyone could catch or control him.”

Edelith sank onto a chaise, her mouth agape. She managed to gasp, “but the skimmers weren’t the cause of the collapse, they couldn’t have been —”

“They were the catalyst,” said Ike. “The potential must have already been there.”

Edelith forced herself to ass. “Yes, of course. The potential for collapse is inherent in any entropy-reversing system. Its strength is measured by how well the system can cope with or adapt to new circumstances — yes, of course, Ike —” She looked up, her eyes were bright with realization, “— the impact of the skimmers was too much for the Empire; they happened too fast. They overloaded the culture’s ability to adjust —”

“And the result was an explosion of irresponsibility,” said Ike. "First, the economic chaos, then the political upheavals; then, anally, men must have seized the skimmers for their own ends, either to flee or to control. The skimmers represent ultimate power. I suppose that men must have killed for them, become dictators or tyrants. A man with a skimmer has absolute control, yet he cannot be caught or killed.”

Edelith shook her head, “No, Ike — not dictators. Gods. Men would have used the power of the skimmers to set themselves up as gods.”

From SPACE SKIMMER by David Gerrold (1972)
FUSTEST WITH THE MOSTEST: NO STEALTH IN SPACE

James Cambias:

In the perfect-information environment of space, pirates can still operate — they just have to be clever. Base themselves in "choke points" with suitably chaotic politics, so they can intercept merchants when they've finished their burn and can't evade.

Example: for a forthcoming story (The Barbary Shore by James L. Cambias) about pirates intercepting Lunar helium payloads, I put the raiders at L-1, near where the payloads launched from the Moon begin the fall down to Earth. The payloads are moving very slowly there, so a quick burn from L-1 can intercept them. Until they start their intercept burn, the pirates are peaceful "Lunar Resource Satellites" duly registered and legal.


Doug:

In a non-FTL system any attempt to draw close enough to a ship to board is going to be clearly visible to anyone looking the right way at the right time. Even barring a distress call that could be heard by anyone in the system and lead them to point their telescopes in the right direction sooner or later someone is going to spot the pirate ship while it is pirating. Once that occurs the ship can be tracked, and at some point the pirates are going to need a port or a base. Under these circumstances any port that gives aid to a ship that has been identified as a pirate will be getting a visit from a taskforce some time soon; since as I recall that would be an act of war. Chances are the regions harbouring pirates would not be up to a full-scale war against the regions they are robbing, since presumnably the robbed has more resources than the robber.

And that would be the problem Cambias. Without any uncertainty about where the perpetrators of the crime had gone it would be quite simple to take measures to stop them. Without a horizon or islands around to use to keep out of sight any act of piracy would be in full view of the solar system.

This also applies to Rebel groups, the only real places to hide are inside of habitats, otherwise tracking down a rebel base is just too easy. If there is a rebellion it will be less space battles and more sabotage and knifings. Of course you have internal sensors to worry about, but those are much easier to smash than telescopes on the far side of the system.


James Cambias:

I covered that in my story. The pirates are perfectly legal right up to the moment they start pirating. Then their flag government is shocked, shocked to discover these seemingly honest entrepreneurs were actually pirates. Some hapless political dissident gets arrested for the crime, and things continue. The story, of course, is about the inevitable response.

From FUSTEST WITH THE MOSTEST, comment section (2007)
BOOKS I WILL NOT WRITE #4: SPACE PIRATES OF KPMG: PIN-STRIPE PIRACY

Starships are expensive, intricate pieces of machinery. They are difficult to build and maintain, and have to be continuously in motion, transporting cargo and passengers, in order to cover their running costs.

There are space pirates. They, too, have to pay huge amounts of money to keep their starships running, and they can't afford to be stupid about it.

The space pirates' business model is this: they identify a likely target merchant ship, match courses with it, and board.

They do not, however, rape, pillage, and murder the passengers and crew. That would leave them having to transport a lot of bulk merchandise and find somewhere to fence it, taking an inevitable hit in the commodity's resale value. It would also set everyone's hand against them. Not good for life expectancy ...

Instead, they audit the cargo. Then they search out for any secret items the ship is transporting, stuff that is of high value but not publicly announced. Many times they don't find any. But sometimes they stumble across a passenger liner with a safe full of quantum computing chips, or a bulk liquid carrier with much less freight volume in its cargo holds than expected and something extremely massive tucked away — a lump of stabilized neutronium, for example.

They do not steal the secret cargo. Instead, they notify their accomplices by means of their private causal channel to buy commodity options based on their insider knowledge of the secret cargo's impending arrival. Then they give the hijacked ship an armed escort (under communications silence) all the way to its destination, to ensure it arrives on time.

Thus: your typical space pirate in the Eschaton universe metaphorically wears a grey pin-striped suit, swarms aboard a merchant vessel with a spreadsheet between his clenched teeth, and has retirement plans involving a senior partnership in a firm of accountants. (Captain Jack Sparrow he ain't.)

Such pirates are tolerated by the majority of sane merchant captains (although they drive commodity traders up the wall) because space is big, space is dark, and space contains a small but worrying number of idiot barbarians who will, if they see a foreign merchant vessel, board it with rape, pillage and murder in mind. Idiot barbarians are bad for commerce. Professional space pirates strongly disapprove of this and will take drastic preventative measures when they run into them.

Now, fast-forward a decade after the events of "Singularity Sky". The New Republic of that book is, clearly, in dire straits. In fact, it's disintegrating under the stress of its own cultural singularity (inflicted by first contact with the Festival). The economy is in tatters; navy crews are not being paid. Is it any wonder if the crews of the surviving vessels of the New Republican Navy mutiny and light out for parts unknown, there to try and make their fortune flying the Jolly Roger (despite not knowing a put option from a hole in a bowling green)?

The pin-striped space pirates aren't going to approve ...

from BOOKS I WILL NOT WRITE #4: SPACE PIRATES OF KPMG by Charles Stross (2010)
THE PROBLEM WITH PIRATES

And the problem with pirates is that they aren't a problem... as people imagine it to happen.

For one thing, as the book states, Space is big, really big. It's so big it's next to impossible for a pirate ship to sneak up on a cargoship, and not because "There Ain't No Stealth In Space" it's because "Space Is Fraking Huge!" The travel times are so long, it's highly improbable that the pirate ship is in the right place.

Here's an example: We're in the Sol system, and Earth and Mars are in opposition, so the T2 cargo ship, Bountiful Booty (with V-Shift 2), is making the trip to Mars full of cargo from Earth. It will take 2.5 days to get there.

At the same time, the Space Pirate Base on the asteroid Pallas, is also at opposition and at perihelion, 2.132 AU. They see the Bountiful Booty leave Earth for Mars. They hop into their T2 pirate ship, the Lusty Lady, (also with V-Shift 2) and overburn to intercept the cargoship.

Based on the Continuous Thrust Travel Time Calculator, they will arrive in 3 days at Mars, (2 days, 17 hours).

See the problem there? They can't catch them in space, even if they tried.

If the pirates don't turnaround and decel, they will intercept the cargo ship in deep space. But, alas, they are going in the wrong direction! Combat would be a quick jousting match, leaving one or both ships terminally disabled from the encounter. And even if it didn't, the pirate ship would have to turn around and catch up. They will have to travel the same distance again before they can head back. By that time, their radiators are glowing cherry red, and they are low on fuel.

"So John, are you saying that space pirates are impossible?" you may ask.

My answer is "No." They can still operate, but not in deep space. The problems of hiding your base of operations (impossible) and traveling fast enough to intercept the target (highly improbable and dangerous), means that pirates will not be hiding out in the asteroid belt, but on the planet itself.

In real life, most pirates sailed in sloops, fast and maneuverable, and mainly used their reputation to terrorize cargo vessels and only deal with the really valuable cargo.

So the pirates aren't piloting big space ships, they are flying interface craft, aerospace fighters and cargo shuttles, and after threatening to destroy the cargoship, the shuttles dock and load the valuable stuff, and they all drop back down into the planet's atmosphere and then hide amongst the ground clutter.

The pirates will have a ship in orbit during Opposition around Mars to keep an eye out for traffic from Earth. When they see the Bountiful Booty fire up it's drives and climb up Sol's gravity well for Mars, they will alert the pirate base on Mars and by the time the BB shows up, the corsairs are in orbit waiting for her.

Of course the Martian constabulary will have their patrol vessels in orbit, watching out for the corsairs, but it's not as easy to spot something in orbit, since it's out of sight half the time. And it still takes time to change orbital levels and intercept a ship.

PIRATE TARGETS

The Fifth Force in the Universe

Quick answer: it's violence.

In writing about crime in space I've come to the conclusion it probably is not going to be what we expect. Space pirates are not going to hunt down their prey, plan an ambush from behind a small moon. I never understood how they got to see the target but the target didn't get to see them. Line-Of-Sight (LOS) should work both ways if playing Squad Leader taught us anything!

Space pirates still might have cutlasses. But space is not an ocean (more like a Black Desert plug plug!).

So while my previous post explained that limited space piracy was possible with hard science rockets (and enough work and sneaking) going after a ship is just plain stupid if you have any better targets and there are plenty following stable predictable orbits and with no ability to maneuver!

They're called space stations.

So what if they see you coming a month or more away? You look like anyone else coming in to stop for water and stores. You're always stopping for water; the stuff has a million uses. You get there and swarm the place. Even better wait for other ships to be docked and you might grab one of those too! I mean look, they're just sitting there docked!

There are still things a savvy station owner can do to minimize the risk of pirate attacks. If your establishment is under spin to create gravity you're probably trying hard to keep one section counter rotating so it's a stationary docking port for ships. Stop doing that. Have a station hub, a reinforced module with a bunch of different docking ports for ships can be a defensive feature. If the new customers have a suspicious number of parrots, eyepatches and rolled 'R's open an empty docking port to vacuum. Repeat as necessary.

If you're going to hit a station the loot might be immense. You will want to make sure it's immense. Because you're going to want to lay low and pay people to ignore you for a long time after this. Spies or inside men will pay for themselves many times over. Not only do they provide tips, a bit if sabotage works wonders to reduce resolve.

Also note a smart pirate will plan to attack a station and stay the hell away from underground bases in asteroids or moons. Those places have entrances at the end of tunnels and usually lots and lots of explosive charges. Blowing a habitat in a station could be suicide. Blowing a tunnel and collapsing it (optionally full of invaders) is something most miners won't think twice about.

Mines are usually dealing in raw materials though certainly some refining takes place to avoid wasting propellant carting slag around. You might not be interested in 200 tons of semi-pure iron. Much better to hit a station where it is already in the form of useful manufactured goods.

From THE FIFTH FORCE IN THE UNIVERSE by Rob Garitta (2015)
RECRUITMENT STARTS WITH ARRRR

So ye want te be a pirate chieftain do ye? Well getting a ship be easy. Beg, borrow or steal one. Getting the crew be the hard part!

Know what? I'm tired of talking that way.

Yes, the ship usually comes with a crew but after the usual methods of acquisition that may not be the case. A crew might mutiny and then some refuse to to sail under the Black Flag. Add to this that some crew may pirate only briefly and then retire or be retired and you realize there is a bit of a turnover rate. How then do you recruit more pirates?

This problem is compounded by the fact that pirates need some very skilled personnel to repair and modify ships and their transponders. The Navy can just hang some posters up and man a kiosk at the port with some eye candy and attract gullible young people. Try that with piracy and see what far you get. (Spoiler: you get twenty years hard time to life.) But don't worry! If the Scouts can attract recruits anyone can!

In several posts I mention piracy starts at starports. There any savvy group of Brethren have a number of snitches and agents identifying a juicy cargo to plunder. It beats rolling stuff up on an encounter chart. But it starts well before that. Piracy arises from a number of economic issues and local politics.

Take the Brethren (nickname given by the Navy brass). The Brethren were originally a a group of crime families who prospered and expanded to several worlds and stations. They began a number of illegal mining, drug refining and slave camps. They soon found that they had to guard these operations as well as have method of punishing those managers who were derelict in their duties or worse — skimming. They quietly put the word out through smuggling ring contacts and got a number of pirate captains quite willing to follow orders for a fat and regular paycheck. With their expansion secured the Brethren realized their space forces could easily generate more income and were mostly sitting around idle!

 The Brethren embarked on a highly organized system of insurance fraud. Precious cargo would be bought, insured, and loaded on ships. In the process the cargo would be switched for worthless junk and sold groundside before anyone knew it was stolen. The ship carrying the false cargo would then be attacked, boarded and looted with the pirate crew instructed to do no real damage to the merchant already part of the Brethren. The Navy would chase the pirates in many cases and a well timed wave of smugglers would descend onto the Brethren's planet.

In some clusters the brethren began trading on their reputation. Representatives would approach shipping companies and introduce them to a very reasonable (compared to the alternative) rate system to assure no pirates would bother their ships. The same representatives called on a number of smuggling rings as well. Needless to say the smugglers were another source of recruits. Some merchants quit their companies to pirate as well. If they were going to endure violence and corruption the pirates had better armed ships and more leverage.

Some of the starport informants were quite skilled indeed working in traffic control, and maintenance and would make prime crew. Leverage to recruit them varied. Does that traffic controller have a gambling problem? Does the married engineer like the ladies a little too much. Any and every vice was monetized to get some hold over them. Loans and bribes to help out recruits were also used. These loans will be expensive. Just how expensive no one knows because no one ever finished paying them back. Maybe a promising recruit lacked the connections to make it into one academy or another. The Brethren obliged.

All these informants, expediters and corrupt officials had two things in common: a set of skills and a finite career groundside. They could either keep pointing out targets until they are caught or retire after they made enough to suit retire.

Except the Brethren might not want them to retire.

Now apart from their strong work ethic the Brethren usually did all right by its informants. When one got fingered they made a concerted effort to get the person offworld and onto a ship where they could be of further use. Letting them get arrested is just opening a whole other can of worms. It also made new snitches harder to recruit. So your traffic controller ended up manning a scanner on a corsair. Your engineer was set to up gun that merchant you brought in. That's how they got highly skilled labor.

Whole crews were harder. Sometimes a merchant skipped on payments and went rogue, peddling smoke stick cartons without the duty stamp and declaring himself a pirate. They usually lasted till they met a real pirate who made the crew an offer. Being outlaws already many accepted.

Privateers were another source of crews (GASP!). Once they started attacking enemy merchants some had trouble reading the print on their letters of marque and started grabbing any ship. Others wound up buying a ship for what amounted to a short war and horribly, peace! Left with no way to make payments and a warship what do you think they did?

Some crew came from prize ships. After working long hours, enduring passengers, local laws and a stratified promotion system many merchants chose a life of piracy instead of ending up a retired wage slave with a gold watch. The same held true to a lesser extent for Navy and Scouts. Some people would rather take a chance at riches if they're going to be putting their lives on the line anyway.

Moral of the story: pirates don't exist in a vacuum.

From RECRUITMENT STARTS WITH ARRRR by Rob Garitta (2016)

Pirate Havens

Another problem to be addressed if you want piracy to be viable is infrastructure. Captain Jack Sparrow's ship needed no fuel, only the winds. The crew can repair much of the ship if they can find an island that has trees. And there is no shortage of places that will accept gold coins and jewels. Now a pirate starship might be able to squeak by if they can use water or hydrogen for fuel, but it will be a real problem if their ships require antimatter or highly refined plutonium. Repairing ones ship is job for a shipyard, not a random asteroid with the crew frantically looking for nuggets of titanium. And fencing high tech computer chips will be a challenge. What pirates need is a Pirate Haven.

The two models of pirate havens are Tortuga and Port Royal. Tortuga was a place made by pirates and run by pirates for the benefit of pirates. Port Royal was a place that officially was against pirates. But unofficially they would purchase pirated goods, repair pirate ships, and show pirate crews a good time. In order to maintain the illusion of their anti-pirate stance the officials of Port Royal would strain themselves looking the other way, and never ever asking any embarrassing questions.

James Cambias said that manned piracy in space would require some kind of space habitat which is either run by a powerful Earth state yet tolerates piracy (the "no peace beyond the Line" model), or a space habitat which is essentially owned by pirates and can defend itself (the "Libertaria" model).

Pirate havens may also have their very own argot, Thieves' Cant or secret language.

WIKIPEDIA: PIRATE HAVEN

Pirate havens are ports or harbors that are a safe place for pirates to repair their vessels, resupply, recruit, spend their plunder, avoid capture, and/or lie in wait for merchant ships to pass by. The areas have governments that are unable or unwilling to enforce maritime laws. This creates favorable conditions for pirates and piracy.

These havens were often near maritime shipping lanes. Although some havens were merely hidden coves, some were established by governments who employed privateers to disrupt the overseas trade of rival nations.

From PIRATE HAVEN in Wikipedia
THE ECOLOGY OF PIRACY

Access to facilities, not their expense, is the key to on-going piracy. Basic ships stores can be extorted from casual traffic, purchased under a "cover" identity, or delivered through a second ship (willingly or under duress). Annual maintenance and repairs of battle damage will require lengthy stops in a class A or B port. Battle damage can be difficult to explain to port authorities (bear in mind that not everyone can be bribed, and not all those who can will stay bought). Secure maintenance can be a difficult and expensive proposition, and such bases will delimit the natural "ranges" of successful pirates. Without secure bases of operation, pirates will lead a hand-to-mouth existence, extorting or conning their way through groundside repairs, always one jump ahead of the fleet, having to abandon vessels with great frequency or operating unreliable ships increasingly prone to dangerous malfunctions. Pirates with such handicaps will be no match for the local authorities, armed merchantmen, or jealous rivals.

Personnel must be taken into consideration as well. Few ship's crew will care to spend their entire lives onboard ship, slowly accumulating money. Ship's crew must be given rest and recreation in port at frequent intervals, or they will soon desert or mutiny. In addition, pirate crews are not renowned for their high moral fiber or their extreme loyalty. Many a second-in-command has "promoted" himself with murder. Many crewmembers will get revenge for a slight (real or imagined) by betraying their ship and turning state's evidence. A captain who took command by mutiny could very well have set the precedent for his own downfall.

Pirates must seek out class A or B star-ports beyond the borders of major states, and controlled by authorities too weak or too immoral to bar suspected criminals from their facilities.

From THE ECOLOGY OF PIRACY ON THE SPINWARD MAIN by Steven Sowards, The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No. 19 (1983)
PATH OF THE FURY: SUPPLYING PIRATE INFRASTRUCTURE

"And we've already been dumping a lot of luxury items through Wyvern. I don't see any reason we can't fence the rest of our loot there—they certainly won't object."

He shrugged, and heads nodded here and there. Most Rogue Worlds were fairly respectable (by their own lights, at least), but Wyvern's government was owned outright by the descendants of the captain-owners of one of the last piratical fleets of the League Wars to go "legitimate." It bought or sold anything, no questions asked, and was equally indiscriminate in the deals it brokered. Many of its fellow Rogue Worlds might deplore its existence, yet Wyvern was too useful an interface (and too well armed) tor most of them to do anything more strenuous. Which, since the Empire had both the power and the inclination to smack the hands of those who irritated it, gave Wyvern's robber-baron aristocracy a vested interest in anything that might disrupt the nascent Franconian Sector's stability.

From PATH OF THE FURY by David Weber (1992)
THE WITCHES OF KARRES: SUPPLYING PIRATE INFRASTRUCTURE

"One thing, here's Uldune!" Her fingertip traced over the star map between them, stopped. "Be just about a week away, on half-power."

The captain gave her a surprised look. Uldune was one of the worlds around here which were featured in Nikkeldepain's history books; and it was not featured at all favorably. Under the leadership of its Daal, Sedmon the Grim, and various successors of the same name, it had been the headquarters of a ferocious pirate confederacy which had trampled over half the Empire on a number of occasions, and raided far and wide beyond it. And that particular section of history, as he recalled it, wasn't very far in the past.

"What's good about being that close to Uldune?" he inquired. "From what I've heard of them, that's as bloodthirsty a bunch of cutthroats as ever infested space!"

"Guess they were pretty bad," Goth acknowledged. "But that's a time back. They're sort of reformed now."

"Sort of reformed?"

She shrugged. "Well, they're still a bunch of crooks, Captain. But we can do business with them."

"Business!"


She'd never been on Uldune but it was a frequent stopover point for Karres people. Uldune's reform, initiated by its previous Daal, Sedmon the Fifth, and continued under his successor, had been a matter of simple expediency—the Empire's expanding space power was making wholesale piracy too unprofitable and risky a form of enterprise. Sedmon the Sixth was an able politician who maintained mutually satisfactory relations with the Empire and other space neighbors, while deriving much of his revenue by catering to the requirements of people who operated outside the laws of any government. Uldune today was banker, fence, haven, trading center, outfitter, supplier, broker, and middleman to all comers who could afford its services. It never asked embarrassing questions. Outright pirates—successful ones, at any rate—were still perfectly welcome. So was anybody who merely wanted to transact some form of business unhampered by standard legal technicalities.

"I'm beginning to get it!" the captain acknowledged. "But what makes you think we won't get robbed blind there?"

"They're not crooks that way—at least not often. The Daal goes for the skinning alive thing," Goth explained. "You get robbed, you squawk. Then somebody gets skinned. It's pretty safe!"

It did sound like the Daal had hit on a dependable method to give his planet a reputation for solid integrity in business deals. "So we sell the cargo there," the captain mused. "They take their cut—probably a big one—"

"Uh-huh. Runs around forty per."

"Of the assessed value?"

"Uh-huh."

"Steep! But if they've got to see the stuff gets smuggled to buyers in the Empire or somewhere else, they're taking the risks. And, allowing for what the new drive engines will cost us, we'll be on Uldune then with what should still be a very good chunk of money. . . . Hmm!"


While still half a day away from the one-time pirate planet, the Venture's communicators signaled a pick-up. They switched on the instruments and found themselves listening to a general broadcast from Uldune, addressed to all ships entering this area of space.

If they were headed for Uldune on business, they were invited to shift to a frequency which would put them in contact with a landing station off-planet. Uldune was anxious to see to it that their visit was made as pleasant and profitable as possible and would facilitate matters to that end in every way. Detailed information would be made available by direct-beam contact from the landing station.

It was the most cordial reception ever extended to the captain on a planetary approach. They switched in the station, were welcomed warmly to Uldune. Business arrangements then began immediately. Before another hour was up Uldune knew in general what they wanted and what they had to offer, had provided a list of qualified shipbuilders, scheduled immediate appointments with identity specialists, official assessors who would place a minimum value on their cargo, and a representative of the Daal's Bank, who would assist them in deciding what other steps to take to achieve their goals to best effect on Uldune.

Helpful as the pirate planet was to its clients, it was also clear that it took no unnecessary chances with them. Visitors arriving with their own spacecraft had the choice of leaving them berthed at the landing stations and using a shuttle to have themselves and their goods transported down to a spaceport, or of allowing foolproof seals to be attached to offensive armament for the duration of the ship's stay on Uldune. A brief, but presumably quite effective, contamination check of the interior of the ship and of its cargo was also carried out at the landing station. Otherwise, aside from an evident but no-comment interest aroused by the nova guns in the armament specialists engaged in securing them, the Daal's officials at the station displayed a careful lack of curiosity about the Venture, her crew, her cargo, and her origin. An escort boat presently guided them down to a spaceport and their interview at the adjoining Office of Identities.


From THE WITCHES OF KARRES by James H. Schmitz (1956)
TRANSPORT NEXUS: SUPPLYING PIRATE INFRASTRUCTURE

jollyreaper:

There's no reason that this can't be worked into the plot. Our own human nations are not immortal. Our corporations can be consumed or die of incompetence. Just because Rome was not eternal did not mean it could not exist for the span it did. The vast majority of seeds do not become trees but that does not mean a forest cannot be.

Any properly vast station would have hundreds of sectors with redundant life support and power generation systems. If we imagine the station as an island in space, consider Hispaniola. On one side we have a functioning states, the Dominican Republic. On the other side we have Haiti, a dysfunctional mess. Same island, same resources, different results.

I could imagine a very interesting setting on a vast station that is suffering from the collapse of unified control. Some sectors are properly maintained and society is functioning as it should. Other sectors are in poor maintenance. Some of the common areas are completely out of maintenance, possibly open to hard vacuum. Perhaps the functioning side lacks the resources to fix the broken areas, maybe lack the manpower.

You have a story of resource depletion and civil war on Easter Island. A relatively advanced primitive society tore itself apart, likely over religion and politics. Imagine if you had a dozen islands within sight of each other, some of them maintaining social order while others descend into cannibalism and anarchy.

So as far as your Mos Eisley station example, a small one would be operated by one pirate king, the same way pirate settlements in the Carribean were founded by notable individuals. His house, his rules. Visitors pay rent. He provides the power, air, and food. For larger pirate settlements, each faction would maintain their own area. You wouldn't see chaotic evil pirates running these places, they'd be pragmatic amoral. These would be the guys you could trust in the sense that you know they are rational and have reputations to maintain in the community. You might get knifed in the back if no one is to be the wiser but they're not going to cheat you openly in a way that would harm their reputations. Get known as a cheat and no other pirate will risk doing business, savvy?

The rationale for a pirate haven like this is fairly obvious. Pirates can't get their ships worked on in legitimate yards. They need a place to handle repairs too big for the hands onboard. They need a place for R&R, can't exactly stretch your legs in places where the cops are. Ships can refit and recrew here. And there's also the need to fence stolen goods. Here pirate cargo gets traded to "honest" merchantmen and can get back on the open market.

Now any number of things can happen to jeopardize the viability of such a pirate haven and that's where the stories get interesting.

(ed note: for more read the section on Mos Eisley Space Station)

From comments to TRANSPORT NEXUS
WAYSTAR: SUPPLYING PIRATE INFRASTRUCTURE

(ed note: Waystar is the legendary pirate haven. Zilwrich is a Zacathan alien, noted archaeologists and historians. They have a life span of about a thousand years. The "Guild" is the Thieves Guild)

"You are right that it was a raid for the treasures we found within a tomb. It is a very rich find and a remainder of a civilization not heretofore charted. So it is worth far more than just the value of the pieces—it is worth knowledge!" And he provided that last word with such emphasis as I might accord a flawless gem. "They will sell the treasure to those collectors who value things enough to hide them for just their own delight. And the knowledge will be lost!"

"You know where they take it?" Eet asked.

"To Waystar. So it would seem that that is not a legend after all.


"They blasted into hyper. We cannot track them." Ryzk shook his head. "And the site of Waystar is the best-guarded secret in the galaxy."


But I held a session in which we pooled what we knew of Waystar. Since most was only legend and space tales, it would be of little value, a statement I made gloomily.

But Zilwrich differed. "We Zacathans are sifters of legends, and we have discovered many times that there are rich kernels of truth hidden at their cores. The tale of Waystar has existed for generations of your time, Murdoc Jern, and for two generations of ours—

"

"That—that means it antedates our coming into space!" Ryzk interrupted. "But—"

"Why not?" asked the Zacathan. "There have always been those outside the law. Do you think your species alone invented raiding, crime, piracy? Do not congratulate or shame yourselves that this is so. Star empires in plenty have risen and fallen and always they had those who set their own wills and desires, lusts and envies, against the common good. It is perfectly possible that Waystar has long been a hide-out for such, and was rediscovered by some of your kind fleeing the law, who thereafter put it to the same use. Do you know those co-ordinates?" he asked Ryzk.

The pilot shook his head. "They are off any trade lane. In a 'dead' sector."

"And what better place—in a sector where only dead worlds spin about burned-out suns? A place which is avoided, since there is no life to attract it, no trade, no worlds on which living things can move without cumbersome protection which makes life a burden."

"One of those worlds could be Waystar?" I hazarded.

"No. The legend is too plain. Waystar is space-borne. Perhaps it was even once a space station, set up eons ago when the dead worlds lived and bore men who reached for the stars. If so, it has been in existence longer than our records, for those worlds have always been dead to us."

He had given us a conception of time so vast we could not measure it. Ryzk frowned.

"No station could go on functioning, even on atomics—"

"Do not be too sure even of that," Zilwrich told him. "Some of the Forerunners had machines beyond our comprehension. You have certainly heard of the Caverns of Arzor and of that Sargasso planet of Limbo where a device intended for war and left running continued to pull ships to crash on its surface for thousands of years. It is not beyond all reckoning that a space station devised by such aliens would continue to function. But also it could have been converted, by desperate men. And those criminals would thus have a possession of great value, if they could continue to hold it—something worth selling—"

"Safety!" I cut in. Though Waystar was not entirely Guild, yet surely the Guild had some ties there.

"Just so," agreed Eet. "Safety. And if they believe they have utter safety there we may be sure of two things. One, that they do have some defenses which would hold perhaps even against Fleet action, for they cannot think that the situation of their hole would never be discovered. Second, that having been so long in the state of safety, they might relax strict vigilance."


However, on the visa-screen what we picked up now was not the ship, but what lay ahead. For additional safety Eet had snapped on the distort beam and through that we could see just a little of the amazing port we neared.

Whatever formed its original core—an asteroid, a moon, an ancient space station—could not be distinguished now. What remained was a mass of ships, derelicts declared so by their broken sides, their general decrepit appearances. They were massed, jammed tightly together into an irregular ovoid except in one place directly before us, where there was a dark gap, into which the ship controlling our path was now headed.

"Looted ships—" I hazarded, ready to believe now in every wild story of Waystar. Pirates had dragged in victim ships to help form their hiding place—though why any such labor was necessary I could not guess.


The band of murdered ships ended suddenly in a clear space, a space which held other ships—three I could see. One was the cargo ship which had brought us in, another was one of those needle-nosed, deadly raiders I had seen used by the Guild, and the third was plainly a yacht. They were in orbit around what was the core of this whole amazing world in space. And it was a station, oval in shape like the protecting mass of wreckage, with landing stages at either end. Its covering was opaque, but with a crystalline look to the outer surface, which was pitted and pocked and had obviously been mended time and time again with substances that did not match the original material.

From UNCHARTED STARS by Andre Norton (1969)

Privateers

When is a pirate not a pirate? When they are a Privateer, of course. What's the difference? Not much, just a Letter of Marque and Reprisal. If a government is at war, and it doesn't want to spend a lot on warships and/or naval officers (or it wants plausible deniability), privateers are the solution. But the line between pirate and privateer is quite vague. The term "corsair" can mean either pirate or privateer.

Here's the deal. The privateer is a civilian warship, owned by citizens of the government. The owner receives a Letter of Marque from the government. The letter authorizes the privateer to attack vessels belonging to the "enemy" (as defined in the letter) in the name of the government. Other than what is stated in the letter, the privateer does not take any orders from naval command.

As the privateer captures or sinks enemy vessels, they get prize money. The privateer submits claims for bounty to the Prize Court to get the prize money. Generally they submit their claim by putting a prize crew in charge of the captured ship at the site of the battle and having it set sail to the port city containing the prize court. The prize money comes from the sale of the captured ship and its cargo (the government can purchase the captured ship at cost).

The prize crews usually are unhappy, since once they are off the privateer they do not receive any prize money from future captures. Only the crew on board the privateer during the battle get prize money from that battle. So the longer a crew person stays on the privateer, the more prize money they get.

The privateer is initially funded by private investors, who in exchange get a portion of the prize money earned. The privateer's officers and crew get the rest of the prize money. The government does not have to pay any money (prize money comes from sale of captured ship), yet gets the benefit of pressuring enemy convoy fleets and warships. It is a pretty good deal all around, as long as the privateer can regularly capture enemy vessels.

Of course the privateer is stuck with the bill for repairing any damage their ship sufferers during battle. And they run the risk of being captured or killed if the enemy ship turns out to be more than they can handle.

If the privateer commits certain offences, the navy can revoke the letter of marque as punishment. If the privateers mistakenly capture a ship of the wrong nationality, the prize court can order the captured ship returned the owners, and will not pay any prize money. In addition, the privateers will be liable to the owners for damages. If the privateers are smart, they will post a performance bond before hand, as insurance to pay for damages to owners. Legally privateers are not pirates, but warships. Pirate law does not apply, but the laws of naval warfare do.

SPACE SKIMMER: LETTERS OF MARQUE

The Empire had always been unwieldy and unmanageable. By the year 970 H.C. it was not so much an empire as a loosely organized confederation. Lip service was paid to the idea of a unified central government for all the races of man, but the Empire was only as strong as its local representative.

Where that representative was only one agent with an Oracle machine and a twice-yearly visit from a trading ship, the Empire was a distant myth. Where that representative was an Imperial Fleet, the Empire was law. And there were all the possible variations in between. Some were just, some weren't.

The Empire passed no laws; they could not guarantee uniform enforcement. Instead, they wrote suggested codes of moral behavior for use by representatives of the Imperial Council. Agents of the Empire were free to apply them — or not apply them — as they saw fit. Or, at least to the degree that they could enforce them.

The Empire maintained few fleets of its own — and these stayed close to home. Instead letters of marque were issued.

Member planets and systems often had their own armadas to police their own territories. Often, those territories consisted of as much volume as those armadas could effectively patrol. Armed with letters of marque, these fleets were automatically acting in the name of the Empire. As agents of such, their duties were what ever their admirals wanted them to be. In return, the badge of the Empire made them — and their control — legal.

The local governments controlled the fleets, and in so doing, they wielded the real power. Some were just; some weren't. The Empire didn't care — as long as they paid their taxes. Most of them did.

In return, they received the benefits of Empire.

In addition to the implied legality of their regimes, they were automatically privy to the vast scientific and cultural library represented by the sum total of humanity. The Empire continually collected and distributed. It functioned as a gigantic clearing house of knowledge, literature, art and music. Member planets disseminated their contributions freely through the system — part of the price they paid for being able to tap the system in return. The exchange was always a bargain: the knowledge of one planet traded for the knowledge of a thousand.


One way to control an empire is to control the pulsing of its lifeblood — its interstellar commerce, the huge ships that swim between the stars.

Indeed, it was the only way to control the recalcitrant government of a far distant planet — threaten to cut it off from its interstellar brothers, especially those beyond its immediate reach. Expel it from the Empire altogether —

— at which point it becomes fair prey to any armada bearing the Empire insignia. After all, wasn't it a matter of restoring order? And weren't the armadas legal representatives of the Empire itself?

An Empire ship would never attack another Empire ship or planet; that would be a violation of the sacred trust of the Empire. But an attack on an independent ship or government — well, that was something else altogether.

The Empire insignia was a license — but only to be used against those who did not bear it. Neat. Effective.

The Empire held that one trump card, and it was enough. It was the card of mutually recognized legality, an insignia recognized by all mankind and one that indicated its bearer subscribed to a known code of behavior. It was a safe-conduct pass through troubled spaces and a basis upon which any two humans could meet for trade, or news, or simply for the exchange of pleasures. It was the card of the open market — and few would endanger their right to participate in that market by defying the Empire. They feared their neighbors too much.

From SPACE SKIMMER by David Gerrold (1972)
THE STAR FOX: LETTERS OF MARQUE

(ed note: in the novel the Alerion aliens have captured a human colony world of New Europe in the Phoenix. For political reasons having to do with appeasement, the nations of Terra are loath to do anything about it. Gunnar Heim, a private citizen, finds a loop-hole in the archaic concept of privateers.)

Heim looked at the bent head, and the rage in him seemed about to tear him apart. "I'd like to go out myself!" he shouted.

"This would be piracy," Coquelin sighed.

"No ... wait, wait, wait." The thought flamed into being. Heim sprang to his feet. "Privateers. Once upon a time there were privately owned warships."

"Eh, you have read a little history, I see." Some life came back to Coquelin. He sat straighter and watched the huge, restless figure with eyes again alert. "But I have read more. Privateering was outlawed in the nineteenth century. Even countries not signatory to that pact observed the prohibition, until it came to be regarded as a part of international law. Admitted, the Federal Constitution does not mention so archaic a matter. Still"—

"Exactly!" Heim roared; or was it the demon that had come to birth in his skull?

"No, no, flout the law and the Peace Control forces arrive. I am too old and tired, me, to stand trial before the World Court. To say nothing of the practical difficulties. France cannot declare war by herself. France cannot produce nuclear weapons." Coquelin uttered a small sad chuckle. "I am a lawyer by past profession. It there were a, you say loophole?—I could perhaps squirm through. But here—"

Word by word, Heim said: "I can get hold of the weapons."

Coquelin leaped in his seat. "Qu'est-ce que vous dites?"

"Off Earth. I know a place. Don't you see—Alerion has to put space defenses in orbit around New Europe, or she can't hold it against any determined attack." Heim was leaning on the desk now, nose to nose with the other, talking like a machine gun. "New Europe has only a limited industry. So the Aleriona will have to bring most of the stuff from home. A long supply line. One commerce raider—what'd that do to their bargaining position? What'd it do for our own poor buffaloed people? One ship!"

"But I have told you—"

"You told me it—was physically and legally impossible. I can prove the physical possibility. And you said you were a lawyer."

Coquelin rose too, went to the window, and stared long out across the Seine. Heim's pace quivered the floor. His brain whirled with plans, data, angers, hopes; he had not been so seized by a power since he bestrode his bridge at Alpha Eridani.

And then Coquelin turned about. His whisper filled the silence: "Peut-etre—" and he went to the desk and began punching keys on an infotrieve.

"What are you after?" Heim demanded.

"Details of the time before quite every country had joined the Federation. The Moslem League did not recognize that it had any right as a whole to deal with them. So during the troubles, the Authority was charged with protecting Federation interests in Africa." Coquelin gave himself entirely to his work. Once, though, he met Heim's eyes. His own danced in his head. "Mille remercîments, man frère," he said. "It may be for no more than this night, but you have given me back my youth."


"Here's the situation. One commerce raider in the Phoenix can make trouble out of all proportion to its capabilities. Besides disrupting schedules and plans, it ties up any number of warships, which either have to go hunt for it or else run convoy. As a result, the Aleriona force confronting ours in the Marches will be reduced below parity. So if then Earth gets tough, both in space and at the negotiations table—we shouldn't have to get very tough, you see, nothing so drastic that the peacemongers can scream too . loud—one big naval push, while that raider is out there gobbling Aleriona ships—We can make them disgorge New Europe. Also give us some concessions for a change."

"It may be. It may be." Vadasz remained sober. "But how can you get a fighting craft?"

"Buy one and refit it. As for weapons, I'm going to dispatch a couple of trusty men soon, in a company speedster, to Staurn—you know the place?"

"I know of it. Ah-ha!" Vadasz snapped his fingers. His eyes began to glitter.

"Yep. That's where our ship will finish refitting. Then off for the Auroran System."

"But ... will you not make yourself a pirate in the view of the law?"

"That's something which Coquelin is still working on. He says he thinks there may be a way to make everything legal and, at the same time, ram a spike right up the exhaust of Twyman and his giveaway gang. But it's a complicated problem. If the ship does have to fly the Jolly Roger, then Coquelin feels reasonably sure France has the right to try the crew, convict them, and pardon them. Of course, the boys might then have to stay in French territory, or leave Earth altogether for a colony—but they'll be millionaires, and New Europe would certainly give them a glorious reception."


"Mr. President, honorable delegates—" The translation could only suggest how the voice shifted, became the dry detached recital of an attorney making a technical point. "The Federation was founded and still exists to end the tragic anarchy that prevailed among nations before, to bring them under a law that serves the good of all. Now law cannot endure without equal justice. The popularity of an argument must be irrelevant. Only the lawful cause may be admitted. In the name of France, I therefore advance the following points."

"1. The Constitution forbids each member nation to keep armed forces above the police level or to violate the territorial integrity of any other member nation in any way. To enforce this, the Peace Control Authority is vested with the sole military power. It may and must take such measures as are necessary to stop aggressive acts, including conspiracy to commit such acts. The individuals responsible must be arrested and brought to trial before the World Court."

"2. The naval branch of the Authority has been used beyond the Solar System, albeit only in relatively minor actions to suppress insurrection and riot or to protect the lives and property of humans on distant planets. By authorizing such action, and by negotiating agreements with various aliens, the Federation has de facto and de jure assumed the posture with respect to non-human societies that was traditional between governments on Earth prior to the Constitution. Hence Earth as a whole is a sovereign state with the lawful prerogative of self-defense."

"3. By attacking New Europe and subsequently occupying it, Alerion has committed an act of territorial aggression.

"4. If Alerion is not regarded as a sovereign state, negotiation of this dispute is legally impossible, and the Authority is required to take military measures against what can only be considered banditry."

A roar went through the hall. Fazil banged his desk. Coquelin waited, sardonicism playing over his mouth. When order had been restored, the spokesman of France said:

"Evidently this assembly does consider Alerion to be sovereign like Earth. So, to proceed—

"5. If Alerion is indeed a legitimate state, then by the preamble to the Constitution it belongs to the family of nations. Therefore it must be regarded as either (a) obliged to refrain from territorial aggression on pain of military sanctions, or (b) not so obliged, since it is not a member of the Federation.

"6. In case (a), Alerion is automatically subject to military sanctions by the Peace Control Authority. But in case (b), the Authority is also required, by the Constitution and by past precedent, to safeguard the interests of individual humans and of member states of the Federation. Note well, the Authority has that obligation. Not this honorable assembly, not the World Court, but the Peace Control Authority, whose action must under the circumstances be of a military nature.

"7. Accordingly, in either case an automatic state of war now exists between Alerion and the World Federation."

Chaos broke loose.

Somehow quiet was enforced. Coquelin waited until the silence had become deathly. He raised another typewritten sheet and resumed in the same parched tone:

"8. In the event of territorial aggression, member states of the Federation are required to give every appropriate assistance to the Peace Control Authority, in the name of the Federation."

"9. In the judgment of France, this imposes an inescapable duty to provide armed assistance to the colonists of New Europe. However, a member of the Federation is prohibited the manufacture or possession of nuclear weapons."

"10. There is no prohibition on individuals obtaining such weapons outside the Solar System for themselves, provided that they do not bring them back to the Solar System."

"11. Nor is there any prohibition on the unilateral authorization by a member state of the Federation of a private military expedition which so outfits itself. We grant that privateers were formerly required to be citizens of the country whose flag they flew, and that this might conflict with the national disarmament law. We grant also that eventually the issuance of letters of marque and reprisal was banned, by the Declaration of Paris in 1856. But while such treaties remain binding on their signatories, including France, they are not binding on the Federation as a whole, which is not a signatory and indeed has members such as the United States of America which never were signatories. And we have seen that the Federation is a sovereign state, possessing all rights and responsibilities not explicitly waived.

"12. Therefore the Federation has the unrestricted right to issue letters of marque and reprisal.

"13. Therefore, and in view of paragraphs 7, 8, and 9, France has the right and the duty to issue letters of marque and reprisal in the name of the Federation.

"France has done so."


"And she might take the chance rather than surrender. I'd hate to spoil our record. Four months of commerce raiding, eighteen Aleriona ships captured, and we haven't had to kill anybody yet."

"Not just that we wont have to blot out lives," Heim exulted. "But the money. All that lovely, lovely prize money."

And a prize crew to take her back to Earth, the business part of him recalled. We're damn near down to a skeleton complement. A few more captures and we'll have to call a halt.

Fiercely: So we don't sell the last one, but send word by. it. Whoever wants to sign on again can meet us at Staurn, where we'll be refilling our magazines. With the kind of bank account I must have now, I can refit for a dozen more cruises. We won't stop till we're blown out of space—or the Federation gets off its duff and makes some honest war.

He gave himself entirely to the work of preparation. When battle stations were piped, a cheer shivered the length of the ship. Those were good boys, he thought with renewed warmth. They'd drawn reluctant lots to choose who must bring the seized Aleriona vessels home, and even so fights had broken out over the privilege of daily risking death in the Auroran System. Of course, the ones who stayed got a proportionately larger share of booty. But they had signed on his privateer for much more than that.

From THE STAR FOX by Poul Anderson (1965)
COMPANY PIRATES

(ed note: This is about piracy in a medieval world such as obtains in a role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. But it has some general principle that still apply in Rocketpunk. In such a game, a player group that rights wrongs and fights evil are called "heroes". A player group that just goes around killing people and monsters in order to steal their gold are called "murder hobos".)

The merchants were in charge.

“In charge,” was literal. The merchants controlled their little country. They had royalty of a sort. They were quite proud of their royalty. They enjoyed showing them off at every special occasion. Their so-called King even had a vote on the country’s controlling board. But the cold reality was this: the merchants were in charge.

The merchants took over the place and changed all the silverware. They made changes to the country’s priorities. Before, when Kings ruled the people, the King’s priorities shaped the laws. And the King’s priorities mostly revolved around the King. The King’s other priorities were the treasury, the church (who supported the King), all the cool things the King got to do that no one else got to do, and a side of conquest.

The merchant priorities were profit-motivated. Out went the church. Out went the old, outmoded legal system tilted to benefit royalty and noble friends. In came the profit motivation, the stock exchanges, the commodity markets, and the Transmuter Bankers. Once the merchants unleashed their infant capitalism, the money – and abuses that followed – came with it. And that was pretty awesome, because it made a ton of people, including Murder Hobos, rich.

The merchants established enormous companies that rolled up to corporations. They built huge fleets of ships. They sent their Murder Hobos far and wide to strange foreign countries. Murder Hobos established footholds, rolled the locals, and brought back enormous riches.

Flags on masts fluttered in the thousands at enormous wharves. Ships waited to sail to unknown lands and take their stuff. And the merchants were pretty proud of what they built. It looked great in oil paintings hanging in richly-appointed parlors.

They forgot about the Kings because they had so much money.

The Kings did not forget about them.

Outsourcing a War

Kings have three core motivations:

  • Conquest.
  • Their treasury.
  • Ensuring their son is the next King.

When King sit on their thrones, gaze out their windows, and contemplate little countries run by heathen merchants with no proper respect for Kings or Law or the King’s brand of religion, Kings see little plum rich ornaments they could add to their glittering collection. The problem, though, are those wharves filled with pretty, picturesque ships.

And here is a King pondering kicking over the merchant’s little capitalistic paradise.

Invasion by land requires this particular King to take all the land around the merchant’s little country and then push into the interior. Also, lighting cities on fire is fun. However, a land invasion involves invading and conquering a nearby country – his nephew’s. That would destabilize his nephew’s crown. And this King spent political and financial capital getting his nephew on that Throne.

The King decided to leave the nephew where he was for now.

Instead, undermining the merchant’s funding would be the fun thing to do. The funding came from overseas adventures and claiming of foreign goods. If the King weakened the merchant’s navy, he could cripple their source of capital. If he could weaken their source of capital, then their corporations would collapse. No corporations, no Murder Hobos, and no one to resist him. Then, the King could attempt a landing by sea. No need to get the nephew involved at all.

Thus, the King went to war by sea. He sent out the press gangs to force people to man his navy. He ordered forests chopped down to build more ships.

The Merchants could handle it.

Kings declaring war and sending out their well-funded Navy to attack merchant shipping was worrisome. But, the merchants weren’t resource-free. They had money and they had bankers. They also had plenty of ships. What they didn’t have is their own formal Navy.

So, they made one out of money.

Letters of marque weren’t exactly new. Sending out privateers in the name of the King is an old invention. In the days past, the letters of marque were in the name of a specific King or country and handed out, like prizes, to the King’s personal Murder Hobos. They were special and celebrated. They made pirates into Knights of the Seas.

Was there anything that made letters of marque special except they were rare? What happens if they’re less rare? Can merchants make a navy out of letters of marque and pure, naked capitalistic profit motivations?

Why not?

The merchants threw their letters of marque on the open market. Anyone could buy a letter of marque. Anyone can fund a privateer and keep the profits. Totally! Legally!

War wasn’t a problem. Hell, war was a profit opportunity.

Financing the Privateers

Time for everyone to make money regardless of alignment, God, or creed. The more unsavory, the better!

The King’s officers loaded the King’s navy with fun things to steal and sell. Cargo included: ships, magic weapons, magic cannons, wizard gear, and expensive clerical regalia.

And it worked like this:

  • The merchants printed piles of letters of marque for sale and dropped them on the open market. Profit collected went back into the country’s treasury. That money in turn was pumped into improving wharves for more ships;
  • Transmuter Bankers advertised loans at generous rates of interest for those wishing to finance a privateer ship (transmuting loans into profits!);
  • Merchant investors pooled together, formed companies, and signed loans from the Transmuter Bankers;
  • Those companies invested their cash into privateer ships. But, they got skittish and reached out to insurers;
  • The Guild of Abjurers, runners and executors of local Murder Hobo Insurance Agencies, offered insurance policies on privateer ships to these companies. Abjurers built insurance pools around privateer risk, which was quite high;
  • Shipbuilders and wainwrights hired every able-bodied worker available for a 50 mile radius to pump out ships for War;
  • Local companies constructed new warehouses as fast as they could build new warehouses;
  • Merchants legalized selling booty from privateers in local open markets;
  • Privateer captains, in the employ of companies, boarded crews of Murder Hobos with generous terms on taking and keeping treasure (i.e. most of it);
  • And the merchants running the country declared privateer bounties import tax-free.

Swarms of privateers left port eager to take the war against the King to the open seas. Once at sea, they jumped the King’s ships left and right. A successful privateer mission turned into free extra ships for the merchant’s companies. Once in port, sailors tore down flags, shaved off the King’s arms, and sent the ships back to seas. Privateers even stole supplies off the King’s ships, took them to various company’s on-land Murder Hobo encampments where they could get better prices (read: gouge), and sold goods to starving settlements.

Understandably, this pissed the King off. He sent more ships. And the Transmuter Bankers (who also financially backed the King’s debt-fueled Navy-building binge) lowered their interest rates. They offered the King generous loans. Shipwrights built more ships in both capitals.

War happened! Kerpow! Kablooie!

And then, Pirates

So, uh, yeah, those ships? Loaded with armed Murder Hobos? Once on the open sea, Murder Hobos weren’t really in the employ of those merchant investors. They had an armed ship full of supplies. Yes, they promised they would go hassle the King’s Navy and have some fun. But, that meant returning to port with booty, selling that booty, and handing the proceeds over to the merchants. Then, the merchants would pay off their loans to the Transmuter Bankers, cover those in arrears insurance payments, and fund the investors. Everyone was happy – except the privateer crew.

What did loan payments to Transmuter Bankers, payments to the Guild of Abjurers, and investors have to do with a privateer crew?

Little.

Privateer captains thought: “You know what else is full of super amazing and awesome booty we can just take?”

Other privateer ships.

Tasty tasty tasty privateer ships.

Not all privateer ships went bad. Many of them made money for their investors. But crews were expensive, and there’s only so many good-aligned sea seasoned ship captains and crews to go around. Even good-aligned ship captains go bad once on the open seas. Think of the fortunes they could make for themselves if they went rogue!

During the war:

  • The King’s naval vessels attacked the merchant’s privateers;
  • The merchant’s privateers attacked the King’s navy;
  • The merchant’s privateers went pirate and attacked privateers and naval ships alike;
  • The King’s naval ships occasionally went pirate too (because why not) and attacked privateers and naval ships.

The sea filled up with pirates. Ships that went rogue blew their investment. Insurance terms triggered. The Abjurers paid out, covered the costs of the loans, and hiked everyone’s rates. The hike in rates pissed off other investors, so they started calling for anti-pirate laws. Anti-pirate laws meant sending out more privateers to hunt down rogue Murder Hobos with pirate ships and sink them.

Pirate ships found haven with off-shored company-based Murder Hobo encampments busy making corporate profits. Pirates would sell their booty to fellow Murder Hobos, good or evil, for cheaper than the privateers or the company suppliers. On-land Murder Hobos even built the pirates little pirate hangouts with taverns and inns. The pirates would periodically return with gear refills and the occasional magic sword or upgraded wizard gadget they pulled off a King’s Naval or Company Privateer ship.

Company agents running Murder Hobo settlements wrote back to home base. The pirates weren’t that bad! They kept the Murder Hobos kicking over ork villages and taking their stuff afloat for cheaper! Maybe the company, already funding privateers fighting the King’s Navy, should consider funding the pirates under the table! Consider the profit motive! Adventuring groups! Cheaper!

But investors were screaming. They wanted to be made whole for their lost investments. Companies had to balance between the cheap Murder Hobo supply runs, investors, Transmuter Bankers, insurance agents and the loss of expensive ships to piracy.

What were merchants supposed to do? They had a war to fight and profits to make.

The merchants decided to make an example out of a couple of pirates, sink a few more, and crow about it in their nascent press. Look at all the famous pirates we’ve captured, they said. We’re merchants of Law and Order. The rest the merchants paid under the table and looked the other way.

And this only works for pirates as long as there’s money in it

War is war, and they are not always won.

Once the Merchants and the King got to a point of stalemate, the King looked at his dwindling supply of cash, took his ball, and went home. Until, of course, he asked for a loan from the merchants so he could go to war with his nephew.

Piracy only works as long as there’s money in it for Murder Hobos. Once the war was over, and fewer ships to jump, the pirates wandered off to go attack merchant shipping. But with fewer targets, pirates had less financial incentive. There’s more money in going on-land and carving up a few orks.

But then again, there’s always a new war. The moment the King and the King’s nephew went at it on the high seas, the pirates had new pickings. They were well-appointed ships. Lots of on-land Murder Hobs would pay handsomely for that gear. And there were always investors willing to take a pirate’s cargo off their hands to help them cover their delinquent loans to the Transmuter Bankers…

From COMPANY PIRATES by multiplexer (2016)

Q-Ships

Merchants suffering their ships being ravaged and captured by pirates often wonder out loud if they shouldn't start putting a few anti-ship weapons on their cargo ships so they can fight back. Bad ideas. As a general rule, merchant ships cannot be armed, armored, and combat crewed enough to fight off a pirate attack, not without increasing the amortized and operating cost and reducing the cargo capacity to the point where the ship cannot turn a profit.

A "Q-ship" is a military warship disguised as a merchant vessel, traveling in a cargo convoy, intending to fatally surprise hostile convoy raiders during times of war. They would also work against piracy, and most merchants would be overjoyed to allow such a military vessel to travel with them. However since a Q-ship is a warship, it carries no cargo and returns no profit at all. Other than the "profit" of making all the pirates real skittish. In any event it belongs to the military, not to the merchant.

In Peter Hamilton's The Night's Dawn Trilogy, merchant starships can be armed yet still carry cargo with profit (by author fiat, i.e., because Peter Hamilton said so). The merchants tell everybody that the weapons are an anti-pirate measure (and because the ships sometimes hire out at mercenary warships). However some merchants ships actually commit piracy if they are sure no one will see or live to tell. In other words they are pirates hiding in plain sight.

MARGIN OF PROFIT: USING Q-SHIPS

(ed note: Warning, Spoilers for the story "Margin of Profit". Nicholas van Rijn is the master of an interstellar trading corporation. One of their trade routes goes through a choke point, right past the dreaded Borthudians. The Borthudians are using their navy to capture the merchant ships, seizing the ships and cargo, and electronically brain-washing the valuable crew so they will use their technical training on behalf of the navy. Bypassing the planet would render the trade route unprofitable, but neither van Rijn nor the guild of ship crews are happy about the piracy. 85% of the merchant ships make it through unharmed, but the 15% who are unlucky represent lost capital to van Rijn and brain-enslaved brothers to the guild. Trained crews are at a premium, they are the main item the Borthudians are after.)

(Escorting the merchant ships with warships in a convoy would make the route unprofitable. Arming the merchant ships would make the route unprofitable (a warship needs 20 expensive crew members, a merchant ship only needs 4).

(Nicholas van Rijn has an idea. He makes a Q-ship that looks just like a merchant ship, sends it past the Borthudians, and captures the next Borthudian raider. Then he explains the facts of life to the Borthudian captain, and sends the captain home with the bad news.)


      "Ah, so. Greetings and salubrications," van Rijn boomed. "I trust you have had a pleasant stay? The local jails are much recommended, I am told."
     "For your race, perhaps," the Borthudian said in dull anger. "My crew and I have been wretched."
     "Dear me. My nose bleeds for you."
     Pride spat: "More will bleed erelong, you pirate. His Mightiness will take measures."
     "Your maggoty kinglet will take no measurements except of how far his chest is fallen," declared van Rijn. "If the civilized planets did not dare fight when he was playing buccaneer, he will not when the foot is in the other shoe. No, he will accept the facts and learn to love them."

     "What are your immediate intentions?" Rentharik asked stoically.
     Van Rijn stroked his goatee. "Well, now, it may be we can collect a little ransom, perhaps, eh? If not, the local mines are always short of labor, because conditions is kind of hard. Criminals get assigned to them. However, out of my sugar-sweet goodness, I let you choose one person, not yourself, what may go home freely and report what has happened. I will supply a boat what can make the trip. After that we negotiate, starting with rental on the boat."
     Rentharik narrowed his eyes. "See here. I know how your vile mercantile society works. You do nothing that has no money return. You are not capable of it. And to equip a vessel like yours—able to seize a warship—must cost more than the vessel can ever hope to earn."
     "Oh, very quite. It costs about three times as much. Of course, we gain some of that back from auctioning off our prizes, but I fear they is too specialized to raise high bids."
     "So. We will strangle your Antares route. Do not imagine we will stop patrolling our sovereign realm. If you wish a struggle of attrition, we can outlast you."

     "Ah, ah." Van Rijn waggled his pipestem. "That is what you cannot do, my friend. You can reduce our gains considerably, but you cannot eliminate them. Therefore we can continue our traffic so long as we choose. You see, each voyage nets an average thirty percent profit."
     "But it costs three hundred percent of that profit to outfit a ship—"
     "Indeed. But we are only special-equipping every fourth ship. That means we operate on a small margin, yes, but a little arithmetic should show you we can still scrape by in the black ink."
     "Every fourth?" Rentharik shook his head, frankly puzzled. "What is your advantage? Out of every four encounters, we will win three."
     "True. And by those three victories, you capture twelve slaves. The fourth time, we rope in twenty Borthudian spacemen. The loss of ships we can absorb, because it will not go on too long and will be repaid us. You see, you will never know beforehand which craft is going to be the one that can fight back. You will either have to disband your press gangs or quickly get them whittled away." Van Rijn swigged from his bottle. "Understand? You is up against loaded dice which will prong you edgewise unless you drop out of the game fast."

     Rentharik crouched, as if to leap, and raged: "I learned, here, that your spacefolk will no longer travel through the Kossaluth. Do you think reducing the number of impressments by a quarter will change that resolution?"
     Van Rijn demonstrated what it is to grin fatly. "If I know my spacefolk . . . why, of course. Because if you do continue to raid us, you will soon reduce yourselves to such few crews as you are helpless. Then you will have to deal with us, or else the League comes in and overthrows your whole silly hermit-kingdom system. That would be so quick and easy an operation, there would be no chance for the politicians at home to interfere.
     "Our terms will include freeing of all slaves and big fat indemnities. Great big fat indemnities. They do right now, naturally, so the more prisoners you take in future, the worse it will cost you. Any man or woman worth salt can stand a couple years' service on your nasty rustbuckets, if this means afterward getting paid enough to retire on in luxuriance. Our main trouble will be fighting off the excessive volunteers."

     He cleared his throat, buttered his tone, and went on: "Is you therefore not wise for making agreement right away? We will be very lenient if you do. Since you are then short of crews, you can send students to our academies at not much more than the usual fees. Otherwise we will just want a few minor trade concessions—"
     "And in a hundred years, you will own us," Rentharik half-snarled, half-groaned.

From MARGIN OF PROFIT by Poul Anderson (1956)
THE NEUTRAL STARS

A tall, slimly-built man with thinning blond hair and blue eyes that were several shades lighter than his impeccable uniform, rose to his feet and nodded deferentially to Niebohr. “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. To begin with, it appears to be the general opinion that all that is needed to turn one of our ships—whether it be a freighter or a passenger vessel—into a dreadnought comparable with Venturer Twelve, is the installation of a few heavy-duty laser guns and a battery of launching tubes. Nothing could be further from the truth, I assure you. Our ships are purpose-built for the jobs they are doing at the moment. Apart from being costly, the physical modifications involved in providing them with an effective degree of fire-power would have serious side-effects.

“One of these would certainly be a lowering of the efficiency of these ships as far as their original purpose was concerned. In most cases this would mean that their operation was no longer economically sound.”

Although there had obviously been an element of nepotism in Prince’s initial appointment, any doubts about the ex-Corpsman's ability had been quickly dispelled by the manner in which he had reorganized the running of the Excelsior fleet. Gould knew that most of the other members of the board, like himself, had been forced to recognize that in Robert Prince they were faced by that comparative novelty, an honest man. Prince mainly held his own counsel, but when asked for his opinions on any subject he gave them without reserve. Despite his grudging respect for the man, Gould could not allow such a blanket assertion to go unchallenged.

“I’m sure that none of us here doubt your abilities, Commander Prince,” Gould said carefully. “But are you saying that the ships of our fleet could not be modified?”

Prince turned to face Gould, his tanned face suddenly appearing at least ten years younger as his light blue eyes twinkled in an open smile. “Not if they are to continue to make a profit. And that, I understand, is the object of the exercise. As you so rightly point out, I am no accountant. As far as the financial side is concerned, I’m quite incapable of quoting figures and I shall not attempt to do so. If you have any such questions after I have given the technical explanations relating to my particular field, I would appreciate your directing them at Mr. Roth. We have talked, and I understand that he has prepared a detailed report on the cost-effectiveness of the possible modifications.”

“Thank you, Commander,” said Gould. He looked again at the silent, brooding figure of Niebohr, aware that the old man must have anticipated him at every point of his argument, might even welcome the challenge. He had no doubt that Prince’s technical explanations would be unimpeachable, and Rotlfs figures correct beyond question. Gould savored the bitterness of defeat, made even more galling by the awareness that he had exposed, perhaps ruined, himself to no purpose.

“During my Corps service I had the pleasure, if that is the word, of serving for some months under Admiral Carter,” continued Prince. “He was at that time supervising the construction of Venturer Ten. Vee Ten was a comparatively lightly armed vessel built mainly for speed, but even so, the generators and control equipment needed to make that armament function would have been sufficient to account for more than twenty-two percent of the payload of one of our Elkan-class freighters. I should also remind you of the maintenance and operational demands of such equipment. The crew strength of a ship so modified would need to be doubled at the very least, and the crew concerned would have to be trained in techniques and skills quite difierent from those at present demanded of the normal merchant spacer. Such highly trained personnel do not in fact exist outside the ranks of the Corps itself. To summarize, then, even if we were to obtain permission from the government to arm our ships, we would do so at the cost of losing a minimum of twenty percent in effective payload, plus at least a hundred percent increase in crew remuneration… plus the capital cost of the equipment itself. But more important than any of these aspects is the fact that we might well be undertaking such a ruinous burden to no purpose.”

(ed note: to no purpose because the alien raiders apparently have some kind of jump FTL drive that makes them impossible to stop and impossible to catch)

From THE NEUTRAL STARS by John Kippax and Dan Morgan (1973)

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